Senators call for IHS firings, discipline

WASHINGTON - At a hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee July 31, several senators indicated that alleged management misdeeds at the IHS were enough to warrant firings at the agency.

Committee Chair Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said that ;'incompetent employees'' have not been dealt with and that the situation is ''enough to make you pretty depressed.''

Vice Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was ''disappointed'' and ''saddened'' by IHS management shortfalls - and added that she believes there are ''glaring'' problems within the agency's current management.

''If there were this kind of incompetence on my farm, people wouldn't be working there anymore,'' added Sen. John Tester, D-Mont.

''The bottom line, as far as I'm concerned, is that you don't get rid of incompetence like this without getting rid of the people who were responsible for the incompetence.''

The scathing remarks came as a result of a report, released in June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, that identified more than 5,000 lost or stolen property items from 2004 to 2007 alone at just a smattering of randomly sampled IHS facilities. The items were estimated by the GAO to be worth almost $16 million.

GAO attributed problems of loss, theft and waste at the agency to a ''weak internal control environment.'' The impetus for the report came as a result of concerns brought forward by an IHS whistleblower.

Greg Kutz, director of the GAO's Forensic Audits and Special Investigations Unit, also indicated that IHS officials fabricated and falsified documents requested by the GAO through the course of its investigations.

Much of the senators' ire was directed at the newly appointed IHS Director Robert McSwain, who was officially sworn in by Congress in May. A member of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California, McSwain has held various positions at IHS for more than two decades.

McSwain admitted to mistakes in management during his testimony, but also listed many excuses - among them, ongoing challenges in implementing new accountability systems. He also said that some of the GAO research was flawed and that ''not all concerns cited by the GAO in [its] report are current or defensible.''

To the issue of IHS employee fabrications, McSwain said that the situation boiled down to simple mistakes or miscommunications with the GAO in filling out forms, not purposeful attempts to undermine the investigation.

Dorgan reacted harshly to McSwain's explanations, especially given the fact that the director himself had felt it necessary 11 years ago to write a memo addressing issues of unaccounted property, namely laptops, at the agency.

''Your testimony ... seems all too defensive of the existing system,'' Dorgan said, adding that he felt the behavior by IHS employees who may have fabricated documents ''borders on criminal.''

The senator said McSwain should get rid of such employees ''instantly'' and that he should be ''furious'' about the possibility of any attempts to mislead the GAO.

McSwain said the fabrication issue has been referred to the Office of the Inspector General and called the situation ''borderline.'' He assured the committee that he will bring about accountability, but he noted that employees of the executive branch ''have rights.''

''We will certainly deal with them, but they also have rights as permanent employees,'' he added, ''but we will deal with them appropriately.''

He said later that there have been no employee firings since the release of the GAO report, adding, however, ''that's not saying that there won't be.''

To McSwain's testimony, Tester said it seemed as if the agency was ''running different sets of books.'' He said that if the fabrication and other property loss issues were not a result of specific employees' misdeeds, then there is a ''systemic problem [with the IHS] tracking system'' that needs to be fixed.

''Employees do have rights, and I think they should have rights, by the way,'' Tester said. ''But a thief has none - you can downplay this all you want, but the fact is this isn't going to get better until you admit there's a problem ... an alcoholic will never get better until they admit to themselves that they're an alcoholic.''

Dorgan and other senators noted to McSwain that it will be all the more difficult to persuade members of Congress that IHS needs more dollars when the agency cannot account for millions of dollars of lost and stolen property. Many of the angry senators have long been advocates of the agency's need for more funding.

Dorgan stated more than once during the hearing that Mike Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, should have been on-hand for the meeting and that he had been invited to testify - and will be re-invited to do so.

Dorgan requested an update in 90 days from the GAO for an assessment of what actions have been taken at IHS.