April 15, 2024


Watchdogs on a Leash

The Legislature beefed up the law governing agency watchdogs, but are they still too vulnerable to political pressure?

Cynthia Barnett | 7/1/2009

Protecting inspectors

Linda Keen, a highly regarded inspector with a specialization in public health, says being forced out of the Agency for Health Care Administration was “painful” and has left a cloud over her “once unsoiled professional reputation.”
[Photo: Ray Stanyard]
Florida created its Inspector General Act in 1994 to ensure independent oversight in 31 state agencies, five water management districts and the state’s public universities. Florida’s inspectors general are supposed to “detect and deter fraud, waste and abuse.”

But the law put the watchdogs under the supervision of the politically appointed secretaries whose agencies the inspectors are supposed to monitor. The structure makes the job tricky at best. “Let’s face it — no one likes people turning over rocks in their own back yard,” says John Moriarty, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where an independent board is responsible for hiring both agency secretaries and inspectors general. “You’ve got to have independence to do this work.”

Moriarty says since taking his position in May 2001, “I can honestly say I’ve never had one person interfere with one inspection, and we’ve investigated everyone from the agency director on down.”

Nationally, Florida’s approach to agency watchdogs is middle-of-the-road. Some states don’t have inspectors at all. In some states, including Ohio, inspectors can be fired only for cause. In others, like Texas, some inspectors are hired by and report to independent panels. John Turcotte, Florida’s first head of the Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability, now directs program evaluation for the North Carolina General Assembly, which in 2007 set up a special review board for internal auditors because of concerns about their independence. Turcotte says the board, which is chaired by the state controller and has subpoena power, has helped protect watchdogs from the strong influence that “internal auditors and inspectors general are always going to be subject to.” The board also double-checks all internal reports and can investigate cases in which an agency’s reports seem to have pulled their punches.

“Independence is at the heart and soul of what we’re talking about,” Turcotte says. “If you’re worried about keeping your job instead of doing your job, that’s not in the best interest of the public.”

Melinda Miguel, who has served as an inspector general for three Florida agencies, is chief inspector general in Gov. Charlie Crist’s office, which makes her Florida’s watchdog-in-chief. She acknowledges Schuknecht’s case was egregious but says not every secretary who replaces an inspector has ulterior motives. There’s a big difference, she says, between a bad apple and “an agency head who wants to go in a different direction.”

“I hate that this is happening to IGs,” says former DOT Inspector General Cecil Bragg, forced out after being told his investigations went too far. “You’re doing your job, you’re doing it well, and then — whack.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
No inspector general, including Bragg, has ever made a formal complaint to her about being constrained from pursuing law enforcement action, she says. State law gives Miguel authority to investigate such cases and remove any hindrances. Florida’s system “works well and does give us the broad authority to do what we need to do,” Miguel says, particularly after an update last year to Florida’s inspector general statute that incorporated professional standards into the law and prohibited any agency staff member from impeding investigations.

The update came after the Legislature created a Florida Council on State Agency Inspectors General in 2006 to examine the inspector general system and recommend changes “to enhance public trust, accountability and integrity in state government.”

The panel noted that “the current governance structure of inspectors general reporting to agency heads has advantages and disadvantages” but didn’t consider changing the structure because of its scope and time restraints, Miguel says. The Legislature adopted the panel’s recommendation that agency heads should have to notify the governor’s inspector general seven days before hiring or terminating an agency inspector general. But the update did not give Miguel subpoena power, which she and other inspectors general had said was “crucial” to her ability to protect inspectors.

Tags: Politics & Law, Government/Politics & Law

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