Sunday, October 22, 2006

House committee dismisses bulk of investigative division

House committee dismisses bulk of investigative division
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee has let go about 60 private contractors who made up most of an investigative unit that was auditing billions of dollars in government spending, including the $62 billion federal relief package for Hurricane Katrina, the panel's spokesman said Thursday.

The investigators, attached to the committee's Surveys and Investigations division, were released during the past week, committee spokesman John Scofield said. He said that the quality of the unit's work had been questioned by leaders of the Republican-controlled committee, including some Democrats, but he declined to say who.

The shake-up — which leaves only 16 full-time employees in the investigative unit — comes about a year after the Appropriations Committee's chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., launched the Katrina review by saying the unit would "conduct a wide-ranging assessment and analysis of disaster spending." At the time, Lewis said the unit had a tradition of "comprehensive" reporting.

It's unclear how the departures will affect the work of the unit, whose contract staff is made up of former employees of the FBI, CIA and other government investigative services. Some of them had worked for the unit for several years. Scofield said the dismissals would not compromise any ongoing investigations. Scofield said he could not identify the specific work being done by investigators because much of the unit's inquiries involve classified information.

Robert Pearre, the unit's director, did not respond to requests for comment.

Scofield said the "pace" of the Katrina review was not as critical as the quality of the work. "There is nothing sinister here. It's about how we do the best oversight."

The committee's ranking Democrat, David Obey of Wisconsin, was in his home state and could not be reached for comment.

Established in 1943, the investigative unit has focused mainly on defense and intelligence spending programs. Its reports usually are not made public. Regarding Katrina spending, however, Lewis has said he intends to reveal the results of the committee's investigation because of "the national importance of the Katrina recovery efforts and the record amount of funds that have been appropriated."

The committee's review of Katrina spending is one of several examinations of how government relief was directed and spent after the nation's worst natural disaster.

Last year, the Justice Department launched a separate inquiry into Katrina-related incidents of alleged fraud in which dozens of people have been charged. Many were accused of filing fraudulent claims of property damage in order to get thousands of dollars in government relief checks.

Contributing: Kathy Kiely