House committee accuses Interior watchdog of lax oversight

A top House Republican on Thursday urged President Barack Obama to replace the temporary government watchdog tasked with probing actions by the Interior Department, after accusing her of being soft on the same administration officials she was courting for the permanent job.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., issued the appeal in a letter to Obama at the same time his House Natural Resources Committee released a 70-page report documenting what the panel characterized as lax inspector general oversight of the Interior Department. The report is aimed squarely at Mary Kendall, the acting inspector general who has filled the job since February 2009.

Panel Republicans have tangled with Kendall before, mostly over her probe of the Obama administration’s decision to impose a ban on some deep-water drilling after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Hastings has questioned whether Kendall was impartial in conducting that investigation, which ultimately concluded that the government report used to justify the moratorium should have been “more clearly worded.”

As the acting inspector general, Kendall has been tasked with conducting investigations of Interior Department actions and policies, including its oversight of offshore drilling and oil development on public lands. But the Natural Resources Committee’s report suggests that oversight conflicted with Kendall’s desire to win a permanent appointment to the inspector general position.

The result, Hastings said, was a deferential approach — a far cry from the aggressive and “assertive, public calling-to-account style practiced” by previous inspectors general.

“Ms. Kendall has openly expressed the desire to receive your nomination to become permanent inspector general while she and (her) chief of staff . . . administered the inspector general’s oversight role in a manner that can best be described as privately accommodating to senior department officials and your administration,” Hastings told Obama.

Hastings and the committee report accuses Kendall of not pursuing investigations involving political appointees or administration priorities, informing senior department officials of problems without conducting formal probes, blocking an investigator from seeking information from a White House official and providing “misleading” information to Congress.

“An inspector general is expected to be a politically independent watchdog responsible for identifying fraud, waste and abuse, and to report management problems to the department head and Congress so that they may ensure such problems are appropriately addressed,” Hastings said. “Regrettably, Ms. Kendall has not appropriately upheld this standard, and it is not appropriate for her to remain in charge of the IG’s office any longer.”

Kris Kolesnik, spokesman for the Office of Inspector General, cast the report as biased, rooted in cherry-picked scenarios and documentation.

“Anyone interested in the whole story would have to read all the testimony from (an Aug. 2, 2012 Natural Resources Committee hearing on the moratorium probe), talk to all of those that were involved in the matters reported on and have access to all the documents and interviews made available to the committee staff,” Kolesnik said. “The committee’s Feb. 21, 2013 report paints a very biased picture.”

Kendall has previously defended her approach, including in that August hearing before the Natural Resources Committee. Kendall called accusations about her integrity baseless and said they had been personally “painful.”

She said her participating in an offshore safety committee at the Interior Department in the weeks after BP’s Macondo well blew out actually helped strengthen the report that panel produced — rather than undermining her integrity in scrutinizing the government’s post-spill decisions. And Kendall has stressed that the lead case investigator probing the deep-water drilling ban never expressed any concerns with that inquiry.