Wisconsin Spotlight | Oct. 5, 2020
Inspectors general are the watchdogs of government, tasked with keeping government officials and their agencies honest and with detecting fraud and abuse. It’s an important position given the money and power that flows through the organs of the state and the resulting opportunities for shenanigans, great and small. So, it’s more than a little worrying when one of the watchdogs is charged with criminal abuse of his position of trust in an effort to enrich himself.
In the midst of a political climate featuring grandiose promises intended to entice voters, this scandal is a fresh reminder that ever-more expansive and expensive government programs represent irresistible temptations for sticky-fingered crooks.
The indictment of Charles K. Edwards, a former acting inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), came down as most of the country was distracted by the prospect of viral doom. According to a March 6, 2020 U.S. Department of Justice press release:
A federal grand jury in the District of Columbia returned a 16-count indictment against a former Acting Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a former subordinate for their alleged theft of proprietary software and confidential databases from the U.S. government as part of a scheme to defraud the U.S. government…
The indictment charges Charles K. Edwards, 59, of Sandy Spring, Maryland, and Murali Yamazula Venkata, 54, of Aldie, Virginia, with conspiracy to commit theft of government property and to defraud the United States, theft of government property, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft. The indictment also charges Venkata with destruction of records.
Edwards, who resigned from his post at DHS in 2013, had his associates copy proprietary software as well as information about internal investigations and personal identifying information on DHS and Postal Service employees. His intent, says the Justice department, was to sell an improved version of the software back to the government.
According to an internal privacy notice at DHS, the stolen data included “names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, positions, grades, and duty stations” on 246,167 employees. The affected workers were offered 18 months of paid identity-protection services and urged to take other defensive steps, including freezing their credit.
Remember, the guy who allegedly put them in this position was the watchdog tasked “to ensure integrity and efficiency in government.” Under the 1978 law that created inspectors general, his job was, in part, “to prevent and detect fraud and abuse in, such programs and operations.”
The problem of ensuring the trustworthiness of those tasked to keep others honest is such an old one that its most famous framing is in Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? The risk is that, if there’s temptation, it’s most available to whoever is at the end of the line of watchdogs.
As temptation goes, governments offer plenty. Vast amounts of money flow through its agencies, as does enormous authority, including the power to forcibly intrude into people’s lives. That has led tax collectors to commit fraud, police to cyberstalk victims through official databases, drug agents to abuse asset forfeiture powers, ATF agents to set up mentally disabled marks for arrest, and so much more in a litany of horrors.
So, inspectors general and other watchdogs have been assigned to keeping government agencies honest. But, as it turns out, that doesn’t work out so well when the watchdogs themselves can’t be trusted.