Watchdogs are an endangered species in the Age of Obama. The latest government ombudsman to get the muzzle: Amtrak Inspector General Fred Weiderhold. The longtime veteran employee was abruptly "retired" this month -- just as the government-subsidized rail service faces mounting complaints about its meddling in financial audits and probes.
Question the timing? Hell, yes.
On June 18, Weiderhold met with Amtrak officials to discuss the results of an independent report by the Washington, D.C., law firm Willkie, Farr and Gallagher. The 94-page report has been made publicly available through the office of whistleblower advocate Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. It concluded that the "independence and effectiveness" of the Amtrak inspector general's office "are being substantially impaired" by the agency's Law Department.
Amtrak bosses have effectively gagged their budgetary watchdogs from communicating with Congress without pre-approval; required that all Amtrak documents be "pre-screened" (and in some cases redacted) before being turned over to the inspector general's office; and taken control of the inspector general's $5 million portion of federal stimulus spending.
Moreover, the report revealed, Amtrak regularly retained outside law firms shielded from IG reach. In another case, Amtrak's Law Department appeared to meddle in an inspector general investigation of an outside financial adviser suspected of inflating fees. The consultant ran to the Law Department when the IG demanded documents, and the Law Department repudiated the IG's instructions on complying with a subpoena.
These interventions (ongoing since 2007) have "systematically violated the letter and spirit of the Inspector General Act," according to Grassley. IG staffers now fear retaliation -- and with good reason. Their boss, Weiderhold, lost his job on the very day Amtrak received the Willkie, Farr and Gallagher report. It may be hot and humid in the rest of the Beltway, but every inspector general's office is feeling an Arctic chill.
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