Government needs independent watchdogs
When’s the last time you looked your boss in the eye and said "You’re wrong?"
And how candid would you be after you saw a few other people tell their bosses they were wrong — only to lose their jobs?
That’s the plight most of Florida’s top government watchdogs face. They’re hired to keep tabs on agencies and institutions that spend hundreds of millions of dollars in state money. Yet they report to the same people they’re supposed to monitor. And those people are often political appointees chosen as much for clout as for competency.
Take the case of Linda Keen, inspector general for the state Agency for Health Care Administration . . . actually, make that ex-inspector general. A few years ago, Keen circulated a draft report critical of a pilot privatization project with the state’s Medicaid system. Shortly after being appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, AHCA Secretary Holly Benson — who listed the Medicaid-privatization project as one of her key achievements as a member of the House of Representatives — asked Keen to resign. Keen’s dismissal looked very much like payback from a disgruntled politician, and Benson has never given a good reason for dismissing Keen.
The same thing happened to Fred Schuknecht when Florida State Prison warden James Crosby became secretary of the Department of Corrections. Schuknecht told Florida Trend magazine that when he was dismissed, Crosby criticized the inspector general for being overzealous in his investigations. Crosby singling out one case — a 4-year investigation of A.C. Clark at New River Correctional Institution that found significant misuse of public funds — as "way overboard." Within five years, both Clark and Crosby had pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. James McDonough, who replaced Crosby, told CNN that "corruption had gone to an extreme," with taxpayer-funded drunken orgies on prison grounds and a weird obsession with softball.
That’s not to say Florida’s system of inspector generals and other oversight agencies (such as the Legislature-run Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) is worthless. It frequently produces valuable information on the effectiveness of government programs and early warning signs that change is needed. But with more independence, these government watchdogs could do a better job of looking out for the public’s interest.
Multiple layers of protection would be the best way to ensure that. The federal system provides a good model: The president appoints inspectors general directly and they face confirmation by the Senate. Another possible avenue: Appoint a chief inspector general for the state, then have that individual choose inspectors for state agencies.
Perhaps most importantly, no government watchdog should face retaliation from an agency head whose pet project or improper conduct has been criticized. Floridians deserve accountability from their government, and a better system of oversight is an important component of that.