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Culture Q&A

Brian Miller

Watching the money

Keeping government agencies accountable 

Watching the money

Brian Miller (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Brian Miller, former inspector general of the U.S. General Services Administration, is one of Those Who Dared: 30 Officials Who Stood Up for Our Country, according to a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Miller graduated from Temple University on a wrestling scholarship and from Westminster Theological Seminary and the University of Texas School of Law. He is now special assistant and senior counsel to President Donald Trump, but those doings are confidential.

What is the General Services Administration? The GSA is one of the largest federal agencies you’ve probably never heard of, because it works behind the scenes. It handles federal property. It’s the federal landlord. It also buys things for the federal government, so it’s a procurement agency.

What does an inspector general do? An inspector general tries to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in federal programs and make them more efficient and effective. There are 73 inspectors general, one for each federal agency. President Bush appointed me and the Senate confirmed me in 2005.

Do IGs try to avoid publicity? Yes, except to the extent that publicity can deter others. Many times we’ll investigate misconduct and we want to deter others from doing the same, so we will send out a press release. 

One time you did not go running toward the cameras, but the cameras came running toward you. Indeed. We investigated a conference the GSA had in Las Vegas in 2010. Millions of dollars, little value, except as an opportunity for GSA officials to encourage one another. They had, for example, a contest as to who had a lot of talent. GSA officials on GSA government time were singing, and the first-place song bragged about never being under investigation. The irony: They were under investigation and didn’t know it.

“America’s Got Talent”? Yes, the winners kidded about not being subject to pay caps and bonus caps. To give you an example of how wasteful it was, GSA officials eight times visited Las Vegas to determine where to have the conference.

Eight visits? Eight visits. GSA officials stayed at every big resort in Las Vegas on separate occasions to determine which had the best rooms and food. They had parties at night in two-story loft suites. They ordered room service at room service prices to feed the guests, all at taxpayer expense. One of the dinners cost more than $100 each. A mind reader and clowns performed. That story captured the imagination of the media and Congress. I testified six times in two weeks about the conference.

I looked at the records: four days, 300 government employees, $146,000 for food, including $7,000 in sushi, along with a $19 per person American artisan cheese display. You found the session with a mind reader cost $3,200. Yes.

So they had minds to waste. Indeed.

Four hundred dollars for rented tuxedos. Yes, tuxedos for the people giving the awards and receiving the awards.

How about $75,000 for the team-building exercise, which was building bicycles? That was one of them. They had another one where they blew bubbles through tubes.

The goal of blowing bubbles through tubes was … Team building. I’d like to say my team building was writing the report and doing the investigation.

Working on computers is a good way to build rapport. But at the Las Vegas conference, what was the clown for? The clown was part of a training video. I didn’t put the photo in the final report because it had plenty of other information, but Congress and the White House requested more, so we sent pictures of the clown. They ended up in the media along with pictures of the mind reader.

Did anyone go to jail? The person who organized the conference also arranged to have a trip to Saipan. He went snorkeling at various places with his wife, all at government expense. He eventually pleaded guilty and served, I believe, eight months in a federal correctional institution. 

Margaret Thatcher said, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” How swampy is the Washington swamp? It’s swampy. The growing administrative state tends to steamroll enumerated powers and separation of powers—but inspectors general determine whether fraud has been committed against the government, and to work in that area is honorable. You can avoid the swamp if you’re aware and stay away from political agendas.

Is the work of inspectors general somewhat like playing Whac-A-Mole, where you hit one mole and another pops up? It’s a lot like that. The General Services Administration had 12,000 employees, so any town with 12,000 people will have people doing stupid things and criminal things. Every town has a jail.

When so much power and money is sloshing around in Washington, is corruption inevitable? When I was asked why there are always scandals at GSA, I gave them the same answer the bank robber gave: That’s where the money is, and a lot of it flows through GSA.

You were special counsel on healthcare fraud for the deputy attorney general. What was your most interesting case there? A case against TAP Pharmaceuticals where a drug company gave kickbacks if doctors would prescribe certain prescriptions.

Stories keep coming up about healthcare fraud. Will healthcare now, with so many billions of dollars sloshing around, always be a game of Whac-A-Mole? There’s always the incentive to maximize your reimbursement from the federal government. If you’re a healthcare provider, you want to get paid for the work that you actually did. We want to make sure you don’t get paid for more than what you did. There are lots of judgment calls in the billing. Regulations have gotten so complicated that it’s hard to follow all the regulations in precisely the way the government has prescribed. 

From your experience of seeing the corruption involved, any advice on what we should do? Make sure rules are clear and people understand what they are and how to follow them. Then make sure they’re followed.

Easier said than done. Agreed.

Looking at other aspects of your background: How did you salvage a major drug case when the local U.S. Attorney’s Office was disqualified? Things go wrong in all aspects of government, including law enforcement. The conviction of one of West Virginia’s biggest drug dealers was a big victory. Then it turns out the lead detective was having a sexual relationship with the wife of the drug kingpin who was convicted. The wife had not passed a polygraph, and somehow the results got lost. The assistant U.S. attorney did not know she had failed the polygraph, so she reached a very nice plea deal resolving her potential liability. The proceeds of drug deals were in baggies buried in the yard, and when they dug up a bunch, there was a discrepancy in the amount of money reported. The Department of Justice asked me to lead a team of assistant U.S. attorneys to see if we could salvage the conviction of the drug dealer. We impaneled a grand jury, heard testimony, and talked to individuals. We were able to add charges like perjury, and some pleaded guilty to obstructing justice. 

Some people have proposed moving the 73 federal inspectors general out from under their agencies and into an independent agency that would become an extension of Congress. Bad idea? Inspectors general have to have a degree of independence to do their work. If you’re reporting to the Congress in that fashion, your independence is jeopardized.