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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Ridge tried to strong-arm watchdog

The Homeland Security Department's former independent watchdog says he was twice summoned to then-Secretary Tom Ridge's office last year and asked why his reports criticizing the agency were being sent to Congress and whether they could be presented more favorably to the department.

The Homeland Security Department’s former independent watchdog says he was twice summoned to then-Secretary Tom Ridge’s office last year and asked why his reports criticizing the agency were being sent to Congress and whether they could be presented more favorably to the department.

Ridge “was trying to get me not to give things to Congress and also to try to spin reports in a way most favorable to the department, and I resisted both of those,” former Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said in an interview.

In a statement, Ridge said: “I did not always agree with the tactics, interpretations, conclusions or recommendations of the inspector general. At no time, however, did I ever ask him to suppress or withhold a specific report.

Ervin’s statements are “untrue and deserve no further comment,” said Ridge, who left as secretary last month.

The Associated Press approached Ervin about his meetings with Ridge after the dates turned up on Ridge’s daily appointment calendars, which the AP obtained last month under the Freedom of Information Act.

The AP first requested the calendars in December 2003. The department finally released them last month, three days after Ridge left office.

Ervin was the department’s first inspector general. As the agency’s legally independent watchdog, he wrote several reports taking issue with department spending and citing other problems with the Bush administration’s efforts to protect the country.

He left his job at the end of December. The Senate never voted on his nomination during his time as IG and the administration chose not to reappoint him.

Ervin said the two meetings with Ridge in June and September of 2004 were his lone one-on-one contacts with the secretary.

Congress created the federal system of inspectors general in response to the Watergate scandal. The intent was to free these officials from political pressure so they could aggressively oversee Cabinet agencies’ programs.

Ervin’s periodic criticism of Homeland Security programs was a discordant note amid a chorus of praise by the administration for the president’s leadership in the fight against terrorism, the central theme of his successful re-election campaign.

In an earlier interview this year, Ervin said senior agency officials had at times urged him not to release some of his critical reports, but that Ridge never ordered him to do something.

“To his credit, the secretary never did that,” Ervin told CNN.

Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general at the Justice Department, said he found the idea that the inspector general “would be asked to limit distribution of his reports or spin them to be wholly contrary to the purpose IGs are supposed to serve.”

In his interview with the AP, Ervin detailed two confrontational meetings with Ridge.

During a June 9 meeting, “Ridge said a couple of times, ‘Look, are you my IG?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not your IG,'” Ervin recalled.

Ervin said that when he told Ridge that the inspector general served the public, the former Pennsylvania governor replied, “I had an IG in Pennsylvania and he didn’t release things to the Legislature or to the press.”

Ervin said he answered: “But I do here. I have a reporting obligation” to Congress.

Ervin said the meeting “was two hours of ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you being negative to the department? Why are you releasing reports?’ It was a long come-to-Jesus meeting, angry and confrontational. I just spent the whole time trying to educate him about the role of the inspector general.”

Ridge had just endured an uncomfortable morning on Capitol Hill. Senators had used one of Ervin’s reports to question Ridge about problems, including lost and stolen passports, in a program that allows citizens from certain foreign countries to enter the United States without a visa.

In a subsequent meeting five weeks before the Nov. 2 election, Ervin said, Ridge talked about presenting the inspector general’s reports in a way that would make them seem less critical of the department.

According to Ervin, Ridge asked, “What can we do to coordinate our messages on these reports so that you and we are saying the same thing about it?”

Ervin recalled: “I said, `I’m not in the spin business. We don’t coordinate our messages with the department. You can characterize it and spin it however you want, but that’s your business, not ours, and we’re not going to coordinate anything with you.'”

A month or two before the Sept. 24 meeting, Ervin said, he agreed to delay the release of a highly critical report until Ridge could be briefed. The report said the department had ceded to other agencies the important task of coordinating the consolidation of terrorist watch lists.

In the Sept. 24 meeting, which was to have been the briefing Ridge requested, the secretary blamed Congress for leaking the report to the news media the night before.

According to Ervin, Ridge said, “Why do you guys have to share your reports with Congress?” Ervin said he explained that he had a dual responsibility under the law to send his reports to Ridge and to the Hill.

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Homeland Security Department inspector general:

© 2005 The Associated Press