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Farewell Earl Devaney, a true champion on good government

Former Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
In this Sept. 18, 2008 file photo, then-Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Monday, Feb. 23, 2009, President Barack Obama named Devaney to head the new Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.

Good government just lost one of its fiercest champions, ever.

Former Department of the Interior inspector general Earl E. Devaney passed away last week, at the age of 74, due to a heart ailment. With him passed a 41-year, highly accomplished law enforcement career that anyone would be envious of. To him, though, he was merely a gumshoe. Right.

Devaney wrapped up fraudsters, scofflaws, crooks and villains at unheared-of rates, saving taxpayers billions in the process, over the course of his law enforcement career. He did it all in service to the American public — and did it with a wry smile, knowing that he was just a bit sharper than both the average dumb criminal and those who fancied themselves geniuses.

He was like a Cheshire cat toying with guilty mice.

Earl was the most inspiring and interesting boss I ever worked for. His resume was impressive enough: U.S. Secret Service special agent; head of U.S.S.S. Fraud Division; director of EPA Criminal Enforcement; DOI inspector general; chairman of the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency (RAT) Board. Rather, where Devaney excelled was in walking into an organization that was beleaguered and demoralized — and turning it into a first-class operation.

He did that at EPA when its criminal enforcement program needed a blood transfusion. Earl came in and greatly improved the office’s effectiveness, and even stood up a forensics lab out in Denver. At DOI, as IG, he encountered disarray and sloppiness. The first thing he did was give everyone a raise. Once he got their attention, he had everyone moving in the same direction, with smiles on their faces.

He was brilliant in his creativity.

Earl was best known for his work as DOI inspector general, where he investigated disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and deputy secretary Steven Griles, both of whom served prison sentences. There were many others who were held accountable on his watch. In the corridors of the main department building, when Earl walked by, people would suddenly alter their route.

After a two-year investigation into a sex, drug and corruption scandal in DOI’s Minerals Management Service, multiple heads rolled, and the organization was reformed into three independent entities as a result of Earl’s report. MMS was responsible for collecting royalties from oil and gas companies for drilling on public lands; instead, these MMS employees were collecting tickets to sporting events, lavish dinners and gifts, drugs and sexual favors. It was a report heard, literally, around the world.

Earl’s final three years were devoted to his most interesting challenge — head of the RAT Board, which was tasked with overseeing the colossal $800 billion recovery bill that Congress passed in response to the 2008 Great Recession. Earl created a national searchable database to account for every dollar sent to every recipient, by name and zip code. It was a widely touted success story, and likely saved taxpayers tens of billions in fraud prevention, in addition to the recoveries from prosecutions, audits and seizures.

Devaney was an intelligent and savvy executive. He had two impressive abilities. First, he was a great spotter. He could identify talent and capabilities of people without much effort. And he would surround himself with them and keep them content. He could have chosen espionage as a career and been equally successful as a case agent.

Second, he was a master at understanding human behavior. He could read people like a book, and he was fascinated by it. It allowed him to size up a situation and predict outcomes — he didn’t skate to the puck, he skated to where it was going.

One day, he and I got into a conversation about what we did the previous night. I sheepishly told him that I got stuck having to watch “The Real Housewives of New York City,” thinking I had just embarrassed myself in front of this burly, former football player. Instead, he replied, “Yeah, and did you see when Luann and Ramona ganged up on Bethany, how Bethany responded? That was brilliant!” Wait, what? Evidently, Earl liked watching the “Housewives” series to size up their personalities and watch and predict how they would interact. Who knew?

Those abilities are what, in my observation, allowed him to walk into a situation, understand the culture of an organization, and create a more thriving culture and perpetuate it. That is arguably the toughest challenge in all of government, much like private sector institutions. Earl was the master of good government.

He was full of creative ideas, large and small, and set them in motion. One example: IG offices have both audit and investigative functions. His investigations division was populated by criminal investigators, but criminal investigators are not trained to detect a lot of what an IG’s mission covers — things like ethics violations, cronyism, conflicts of interest, self-dealing. They are in a category we called “awful but lawful.” Criminal investigators would often not appreciate the wrongdoing of a ne’er-do-well unless they could tie the activity to a specific crime. To compensate, Earl created — within his investigations operation — a special integrity unit to account for those “awful but lawful” cases. And the head of the unit was not a criminal investigator (Title 1811), but rather a general investigator (Title 1810). That unit did many of Earl’s most successful and widely-praised cases.

Devaney was a legend in the watchdog community — that included the IG community, congressional oversight committees, whistleblower and non-profit watchdog groups, and investigative journalists. They were in awe of his prodigious accomplishments — and would often say so. He is missed in that community, and will be missed for many years to come, as a grand champion of good government.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.

Tags Congressional investigation Criminal justice Fraud good government Government waste and abuse government watchdog Human behavior Inspector General waste fraud and abuse

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