WASHINGTON — Members of the Senate committee overseeing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration said in a letter sent last week to WMATA CEO Paul Wiedefeld they are concerned the agency’s Office of Inspector General lacks the independence necessary to do its job properly.
“WMATA’s apparent control over the OIG appears to limit the OIG’s ability to act independently and may ultimately hinder effective oversight and transparency of the agency,” wrote Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who serve as the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The senators’ letter came after WMATA Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington informed them that the transit agency has implemented policies that have hampered his office’s independence.
Of particular concern to Johnson and McCaskill was the revelation that the WMATA OIG lacks its own IT department and its own computer systems. This, Cherrington noted, has allowed WMATA’s IT department to install keystroke logging software on OIG computers in the past, and could still allow WMATA’s IT administrators to keep tabs on current investigations.
The senators were also troubled by the fact that Cherrington’s office lacks its own general counsel, human resources and procurement departments, and as well as the fact that it must submit its audits to the WMATA board for approval. WMATA should provide funds to allow the OIG to have its own internal departments, the senators recommended.
But Metro leadership downplayed these concerns. In a statement, Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly said that the incident involving keylogging software was an isolated one that was perpetrated by a now-fired employee.
“Approximately 5 years ago, an employee who had access to certain network security features was found to have inappropriately monitored communication of the OIG,” Ly said. “[T]his was the action of a single, rogue employee, and there is no monitoring of OIG computers.” Wiedefeld also confirmed that WMATA does not monitor the OIG’s computer systems.
WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans said he and the other board members will do their best to find more funds for Cherrington, but won’t be able to pay for all the senators’ recommendations.
“For us to fund that in our budget, it would be a difficult-to-impossible task,” Evans said. “My admonition to those two senators is get [WMATA] 5, 6, 10 million [dollars], whatever it would take, and we’ll get this…a truly independent inspector general.”
Cherrington, who has served as WMATA’s Inspector General since April, said he shared his independence concerns with the Senate committee because committee members had inquired about them, but that he would not leave his post even if no changes are made.
“The committee sent me a letter,” Cherrington said Thursday. “I responded to their letter."
Instead of commenting on the matter, Cherrington referred the Sentinel to his response to the Senate Committee, but refused to provide a copy.
“It’s all there. That’s my on-the-record,” he said.
Evans said he would like to act on the Senate committee’s recommendations to make the Inspector General more independent, but to do so would require expanding WMATA’s budget.
“I’m glad [the senators] raised them all, and again in order to make the inspector general truly independent, so to speak, to be in a separate building, to have his own general counsel, to have his own IT would all cost money,” Evans said. “Resources are an issue.”
Still, he disagreed that a board committee needed to approve audits prior to their publication, and noted that Cherrington reports to the WMATA board – not him.
Johnson and McCaskill have requested that their staff receive – by December 5 – an in-person briefing from Wiedefeld on a list of topics, including measures he took to ensure the independence of OIG investigations.