WASHINGTON — Metro’s Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington wants to take steps to ensure his office’s independence from Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority management, and he has some ideas as to what those steps should be.
Cherrington said he plans to propose amendments to the resolution that governs the Office of Inspector General and its employees that would solidify its independence from the rest of WMATA
“I can’t say this strong enough, because I don’t want this to be twisted. I’m not arguing with the way Metro has its policy instructions,” Cherrington said. "Government agencies and quasi- government agencies need policy instructions, they need regulations, so people know what they can and cannot do. It’s just some of that policy instruction can’t apply to this office because we need more tools and we need a business model that supports an independent OIG.”
Cherrington said he and his staff are currently reading through multiple Metro policies, to see where he might want Office of Inspector General employees to be exempt.
As Inspector General, Cherrington – who was hired in March of last year – reports directly to the Metro Board of Directors, and his office receives funding from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Metro budget.
Cherrington said he plans to present his proposed amendments to the Metro Board in the form of a resolution, although he does not have a date set.
“It would be human resource policies, all of the financial policies,” he said, describing his policy review.
In his September letter to U.S. Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Cherrington said he wanted the OIG to have a separate human resources department and its own general counsel. Johnson and McCaskill, who serve as the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee, sent Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld a letter in November backing up Cherrington’s concerns about an independent human resources department, as he stated in his letter to them.
“The OIG relies on WMATA’s human resources capabilities for all personnel actions, which, ‘in theory, could ensure OIG did not receive the best candidates [for employment],’” the senators wrote, citing Cherrington’s letter to them.
“Right now, I use all of Metro’s support,” Cherrington said. “That’s the way it is in the resolution that set up our office. So, Metro management is merely following the way policy is currently. They are not doing anything to try to hinder our operations; they are following policy. Therefore, the policy needs to be changed.”
Metro Board member Tom Bulger said a separate HR department plus a separate general counsel would be a lot to ask.
“Are we creating a kingdom here?” he said. “I mean, what are we doing?”
Bulger said he does not support the idea of giving the OIG its own HR department because it would be duplicative of staff Metro already has. The Board does not have enough money for a separate general counsel for OIG in its budget right now. Board members plan to give Cherrington and his employees additional money during a three-year span.
The Federal Transit Administration has been Metro's acting state-level safety oversight agency since October 2015.
“The FTA has no authority related to transit agency inspector general offices nor are federal funds administered by FTA used to support inspector general activities,” said FTA spokesperson Steven Taubenkibel Tuesday. “The independence of an inspector general is determined by the transit agency board of directors.”
Cherrington said policies which he wants OIG to amend also include policies about travel plans and about purchases, because sharing those with management could compromise the quality of investigations.
“Right now, Metro policy is they approve travel in advance,” Cherrington said. “I would not want Metro to know where the special agents are traveling for official investigations.”
Information technology security was another concern Cherrington mentioned.
“[I] wouldn’t want Metro to know some of the software and other items we need to purchase to data-mine Metro IT systems,” added Cherrington.
Bulger said whether he would approve Cherrington not sharing details with the Board would depend on the scope. If it’s a small amount of money, he said there was no need to request permission.
“There’s probably some… area that we all could agree on so that he doesn’t have to come to the Board” for smaller costs, said Bulger, later adding, “I’m sure we could agree that he doesn’t have to spend money on pencils and paperclips– that would be ridiculous.”
That potentially could include information technology security software Cherrington intendent to purchase, depending on the scope and the cost. However, if Cherrington were interested in a $10,000 purchase, Bulger said he would want to know the details before approving it.
“And we want to be able to hire agents and auditors using our own discretion,” Cherrington said.
When Bulger learned Cherrington was concerned about the competence of employees Metro HR would hire, he suggested Cherrington become involved in the hiring process, rather than request his own human resources department.
“If he thinks that’s the case, he should have his staff on the interview committee,” Bulger said. “Easily solved problem.”
Sens. McCaskill and Johnson included in their November letter that they were concerned upon hearing the Metro Board of Directors may have previewed the letter Cherrington was going to send to the committee, saying what his concerns were.
“During the process of responding to our letter, we learned that a WMATA employee suggested that Inspector General Cherrington show his response to the WMATA board before submitting it to the Committee,” the senators wrote. “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.”
Cherrington confirmed he sent a copy to the Board, which accepted it, before sending it to the Homeland Security Committee, but that it didn’t make any changes.
Cherrington said in addition to the support of the Senate committee that contacted Wiedefeld, he has received support from the Metro Board of Directors and from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in his efforts to increase OIG independence of management.
Leadership of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, like the Senate committee, publicly questioned Metro’s inspector general’s independence not just from management, but from the Metro Board, in a joint-subcommittee hearing back in 2015.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said the inspector general did not seem independent from Metro, as well as from the Board, which therefore compromised the quality of investigations.
“The committee also has concerns that Metro’s inspector general lacks the proper— and should be complete independence,” Mica said. “Metro’s IG reports directly to the Board; however, the IG lacks the authority to audit or investigate the Board. This is in contrast with Federal IGs, who have that authority.”
Like Cherrington, then- Inspector General Helen Lew, Metro’s first-ever inspector general, expressed an interest in the OIG having its own general counsel, but said she works for the Board of Directors and was independent of Metro management in audits and investigations, according to a transcript of the hearing.
When asked about Cherrington's interest in getting his own general counsel back in November, Metro Board
Chairman and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (Ward 2) said the Board would try to get Cherrington additional money, but that he wasn’t sure how much.
McCaskill and Johnson in their November letter to Wiedefeld also asked about the inspector general’s independence from the board in conducting investigations and audits.
“The OIG apparently lacks the authority to publish audit reports online without approval from a committee consisting of WMATA Board officials,” they wrote.
As to whether the board must see a report before it goes online, Cherrington said that part is fine the way it is.