Acting Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security John V. Kelly announced his abrupt retirement June 10 amid questions about the integrity of his office’s reports.
His announcement came just days after an internal review found that he had been directing auditors to whitewash the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) performance in response to Hurricane Sandy, the 2016 flooding in Louisiana, and several other natural disasters from 2012-2017. Investigators noticed that these “feel-good reports,” as the auditors call them, not only retracted major negative findings but also applauded FEMA’s efforts, clearly accentuating what the agency had done right.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Kelly denied the allegations that he ordered DHS staff to misrepresent initial disaster reports, claiming “there was no motivation to make FEMA look good.” After the internal review was made public on May 23, Kelly released a statement of apology to his staff, saying, “I take responsibility for failing to set a tone that all of our products need to be fully objective.”
“While I did not intend to set that tone with respect to the [FEMA] reports, I obviously did,” he added.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the OIG is relied upon “for fact-based products that are invaluable in conducting oversight, and these reports did not meet that standard.”
“It is now the responsibility of the OIG to fully restore confidence in its work,” Thompson added in his June 6 statement. “We will continue to monitor the OIG’s progress upholding its standards and hope to continue to be able to use its work to inform the Committee’s oversight.”
The OIG has not responded to HSToday’s request for further comment on the recent findings or to discuss their side of this story.
The new acting inspector general, Jennifer L. Costello, first joined DHS OIG in 2017 as the assistant inspector general for Inspections and Evaluations. Before her work with the OIG, she had over 13 years of tenure at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), where she was an assistant director in the forensic audits and special investigations unit. In a message Costello sent to the head of the internal review team on May 2, she criticized the current OIG, saying that the feel-good reports “represent millions of wasted taxpayer dollars and understandably cast doubt on our credibility.” Later she reminded the internal review team that, under her leadership, the OIG “must hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold the Department when conducting oversight of its programs and operation.”
The FEMA oversight opens the floodgates for further investigations about the OIG’s “exaggerated” auditing, and raises questions about whether the OIG is able to provide adequate and thorough oversight of taxpayer dollars. Kelly had worked in the office since 2008 and began leading OIG in an acting role in December 2017, begging the question of whether he inherited some of the weaknesses exposed but failed to put a stop to it.