Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Tuesday rejected a proposal by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to support an investigation by the House inspector general into the award of a lucrative licensing agreement to telecommunications company Foxcom Wireless in 2002.
The company has been linked to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been charged with five counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy in Florida and is under federal investigation for allegations he bilked Indian tribes out of more than $85 million.
In rejecting the request, a spokesman for Hastert accused Pelosi of using the issue for political gain.
“We are working hard to protect Americans from gas-price gouging and providing fiscal responsibility while she recklessly plays politics with ethics,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert.
Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, countered that the office had yet to hear whether or not the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was going to take action.
It is unusual for members to ask the OIG, in a tiny office in the Ford Office Building, which falls under the oversight and policy direction of the House Administration Committee, to investigate a matter. Pelosi, however, said she turned to the OIG because she was concerned that the ethics committee could not handle the matter because it has been out of commission for more than a year over a staffing dispute.
“The IG does have the responsibility for House officers,” including the House Information Resources Office, “which was key to approving this company,” Crider said.
But a spokesman for Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) disagreed that the OIG is an appropriate office to investigate the matter.
“The IG can look at contracting but not at committees,” spokesman Brian Walsh said. “As a member of Congress, Pelosi could have reviewed all of the documentation surrounding the Foxcom project herself.”
“It seems that the minority leader, in her rush to make a cheap political attack, does not have an understanding of what exactly the IG does and what its mission is,” he continued.
Ney, however, is hardly a neutral arbiter. In fact, Ney has come under intense scrutiny this year for his various dealings with Abramoff. A recent Washington Post story suggested that the House Administration Committee, which is chaired by Ney, had a role in rigging an informal bidding process in favor of Foxcom.
Although public-disclosure reports do not show that Abramoff lobbied for Foxcom at the time of the wireless agreement, the company reportedly made a $50,000 contribution in 2001 to a nonprofit group controlled by Abramoff. In 2003, the company hired him to lobby.
A November 2000 letter released by Ney’s office on Oct. 20 suggested that an investigation of the agreement could touch on House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose office brokered an early meeting for the company with committee staff.
The OIG’s many responsibilities include conducting periodic audits of the financial and administrative functions of the House, reporting the results of the audit to those under investigation and making suggestions of “appropriate curative actions.” The office is also vested with the responsibility to notify the Speaker, majority leader and minority leader of any financial irregularities found while carrying out audits. It also must notify leaders of the House Administration Committee that an audit has taken place.
Should a member of Congress, officer or employee of the House be found to have violated any House Rules during the audit, the OIG must report the incident to the House ethics committee.
Acting Inspector General James Cornell took over the position in May after the previous inspector general, Stephen McNamara, retired. Congress is searching for a replacement inspector general, who will be jointly appointed by the Speaker, majority leader and minority leader. The OIG received about $4 million for its office salaries and expenses in the fiscal ’06 legislative-branch appropriations bill.
A selection committee comprising Ney and Reps. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) is reviewing a list of candidates for the job compiled by Korn/Ferry, an executive recruitment firm. The first round of interviews will begin in the next few weeks according to Walsh. The interviews will also include Cornell, the acting inspector general.
The office was established by the 103rd Congress, which transferred certain auditing authority from the Government Accountability Office to the OIG. The first inspector general was appointed in November 1993.
Josephine Hearn contributed to this report.