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Culture Q&A

Brian Miller

Watching the money

Keeping government agencies accountable 

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.

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John Peckham

Trusting God’s purposes

Theologian John Peckham on God’s sovereignty, evil, and free will

Patrick Henry College

The Nov. 9 issue of WORLD includes editor in chief Marvin Olasky’s Q&A with John Peckham, the author of Theodicy of Love and professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, discussing God’s goodness and the problem of evil. Here are more edited excerpts from that conversation, including questions from Patrick Henry College students.

In Revelation 21, Scripture speaks about the end of sin and suffering and the perfect environment in Christ’s kingdom. But if God considers free will necessary for some good, and if free will exists in eternity, can we be confident that no second Fall will occur after Judgment Day? The Bible teaches that God knows the end from the beginning. He talks about wiping away every tear, creating everything new, and ending evil and sin. Based on God’s foreknowledge, we can be confident that rebellion will not arise again.

We can also be confident of this because of what we know about God’s character. In Christ, God demonstrates His righteousness and love by becoming both the just and the justifier. His death manifests supreme love and goodness, proving that He is a trustworthy God who has legally defeated the allegations of the enemy. Many Biblical scholars think that the picture of Satan’s expulsion from heaven in Revelation 12 is an account of what happened when Christ died, illustrating that Jesus won the victory both legally and morally and excommunicated Satan from the heavenly council. God’s irrefutable demonstration of His own character might inoculate the universe from another rebellion.

It’s a demonstration for the whole universe. Alvin Plantinga says that a world in which there is an atonement and resurrection is better than a world with no such thing. In order for atonement to be something worth doing, some evil must exist. Right. But say the only thing we knew about God was that He willingly went to the cross to save us: That would still be enough to trust that He has our best interest in mind.

Everything that happens, including evil, is under God’s control. But how do we know when it’s God’s will for us to allow certain evils and when it’s His will to oppose them? If we make the claim that God doesn’t prevent certain evils because He’s using them to bring about a greater good, we risk falling into the trap Paul warns about: the danger of excusing our own evil acts as a means of bringing about more good.

We can avoid this by distinguishing between God’s ideal will and His remedial will. God’s ideal will is what would happen if every creature always freely obeyed God. He uses His remedial will to remedy situations brought about by the bad decisions of creatures. Even though it might have been better if horrendous evils had never occurred at all, God might still be able to bring good out of them.

Like Job, all of us need to be humble and recognize that even our best answers are only going to be partial answers.

God doesn’t need or want bad things to happen in order to bring about a greater good. More likely, God has commitments that keep Him from preventing certain evils. Doing so might contravene the freedom God has given His creatures, go against His rules of engagement, or lead to worse outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that it’s better for us not to stop it. We should strive for goodness, justice, and mercy, and the Bible shows us what those look like.

I’m intrigued by the idea that Satan’s rebellion is not a military uprising but a challenge to God’s character. Does this imply that the devil thinks he would be a better and more righteous God? Yes, that seems to be one of his claims. In his temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, Satan offers Christ all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. He effectively offers Christ an escape route from the cross: “I’ll give You this entire world that You’re coming to save if You bow down to me.” All throughout Scripture, he’s trying to take God’s place. Since he cannot rise to the level of God, he does it by trying to knock God down. That’s why he consistently slanders and undermines God’s moral government.

If all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then why isn’t God’s just punishment a sufficient explanation for suffering? How do you respond to the Scripture verses that show God allowing evil as a way to exercise justice? Scripture offers instances of divine punishment, but punishment cannot explain all suffering in the world because even one instance of undeserved suffering would require a different defense. You’d need an account for why the innocent suffer. Of course, no one is innocent in a broad sense of moral depravity, but many people suffer for things they don’t deserve, and it’s hard to explain why.

According to another kind of theodicy called “skeptical theism,” the fact that we don’t find explanations for evil compelling is not a good reason to reject the existence of God. We’re mere humans, God is God, and we shouldn’t expect to be in a position to understand the reasons behind everything God does or doesn’t do. God might have reasons that we don’t know about, and that might be a sufficient defense. In His response to Job, God says, “Why do you talk so much when you know so little?” Like Job, all of us need to be humble and recognize that even our best answers are only going to be partial answers.

How many limitations can be placed on us before we don’t have free will anymore? Great question. Many philosophers distinguish between the internal ability to make free decisions and the external ability to bring those decisions about. Even if you don’t have the ability to exercise your agency, you still have free will as long as you have the internal ability to make decisions. According to what we know of God’s design and purposes, God gives us enough freedom to have love relationships and to flourish maximally in a perfect world. He doesn’t change those limits, and He promises to grant that much freedom consistently.

Read Part 1 of this Q&A here.

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John Peckham

Cosmic conflict

One view of evil’s existence and God’s goodness

Patrick Henry College

John Peckham, professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, is the author of Theodicy of Love. Here’s part of our discussion, edited for brevity and flow.

The Enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term theodicy. What’s a theodicy? Here’s the problem: God is entirely good—omnibenevolent—and entirely powerful, omnipotent. Why, then, should evil exist? Doesn’t God have enough power to prevent or determine that there’s no evil? If He’s entirely good, He would want to do that. Theodicy is an attempt to defend God against accusations that He’s either cruel or weak. Leibniz developed “greater good theodicy,” arguing that evil is in the world to bring about a greater good. He even argued that this world is the best possible world, because he thought God, being perfect, would only create the perfect world, which would have to be maximally good.

Others disagree. Many philosophers and theologians have questioned this approach. Couldn’t other worlds be better than this one? Even a world that has one less instance of evil or one more instance of good would be better than this one. Leibniz’s theory has fallen on hard times.

When Leibniz talked about the best of all possible worlds, did he mean it’s perfect, or, given what God wants to accomplish, is it a better world than other worlds He could have created to bring about His objectives? Yeah, he meant given all the factors, not every single instance is good, but in an overarching way this world is the best possible one. Some philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga, have said we should think in terms of “feasible worlds” that are both logically possible and ones God can bring about given His other commitments.

How did Plantinga, a contemporary theologian, advance this discussion? Plantinga has led a renaissance of Christian philosophy since the 1960s. His “free will” defense goes all the way back at least to Augustine, but Plantinga has articulated it so well that even the vast majority of atheist and agnostic philosophers recognize his defense defeats the logical problem of evil. If human free will is so valuable that God is good in granting it to creatures even if they misuse that freedom, or if free will is necessary to honor some other value, like love, then for God to grant free will still leaves Him morally good. He can still be omnipotent even with evil in the world, not because He causes it but because creatures misuse their free will.

How does that understanding fit in with traditional Christian doctrines of our sinfulness and our sinful tendencies? Because of the Fall, creatures have an inherited sinful nature and an inherited depravity that inclines us toward evil decisions. But given God’s grace, given God’s reaching out to us, humans can still have the freedom to make some decisions. Freedom is always limited freedom, by definition. For instance, I can’t flap my arms and fly. Not because I don’t have moral freedom, but because I don’t have the ability. The only being in the universe with unlimited freedom would have to be omnipotent: That’s God. Anyone else has limited freedom, and sin is one of those limits.

What is so valuable to God that He’s willing to allow so much sin? You write about cosmic conflict. Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares illustrates that. The landowner sows good seed in his field, but time passes and tares—noxious weeds—are in the field. His servants ask the landowner, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed? Why then does it have tares?” People today ask, “God, didn’t You create a good world? Aren’t You a good God? Why then is there evil in the world?” The landowner says, “An enemy has done this.” Christ then identifies this enemy as the devil, who with his minions wreaks havoc on the world. 

So that’s cosmic conflict. People sometimes say that since God is omnipotent, there shouldn’t be a conflict between Him and any creature, including Satan. But the Biblical narratives suggest this conflict is one of character, not of sheer power. 

‘God has to defeat Satan by demonstrating His own character, not His power.’

What is Satan’s character? In Greek, the word devil means slanderer. Satan raises allegations against the character of God. God cannot meet these allegations with brute force. Say the mayor of a town faces accusations that he is corrupt. There’s no amount of power he can exercise to prove the allegations false: Using certain kinds of power could reinforce the allegation that he’s a brute. God has to defeat Satan by demonstrating His own character, not His power.

How does God demonstrate His character not only to humans but to angels? Scripture tells us that this world is a spectacle or a theater. Another motif: what some Biblical scholars call “the divine council.” In Job, Daniel 7, 1 Kings 22, and elsewhere, God appears as the ruler and sovereign judge, but celestial creatures referred to as the “sons of God” are also in this heavenly council. Satan raises questions about God’s character and makes allegations against Job, and indirectly against God. God could use all His power to squash those allegations, but that would raise more questions: Is God unfair?

That’s where you bring in God’s “rules of engagement.” These are parameters within which God allows Satan to operate temporarily with restrictions, to manifest his claims so those claims will be defeated. The beginning of Job shows the heavenly council where Satan tries to undermine God’s statement that Job is blameless and upright. Satan claims Job does not really fear God, and he can prove it: “If You allow me to afflict him, I could prove he’s not really who You say that he is. I could prove Your judgment isn’t really just.” God says go for it and gives Satan limits.

So, let’s say, a child dies in horrible pain. That death gives Satan pleasure and allows him to raise doubts about God’s justice and kindness. Ever since the Enlightenment, many philosophers have ignored Satan. How can Christians bring back Satan into our consideration of tragedy? It would seem that God could prevent a plane crash without contravening anyone’s free will: He could warn pilots or engineers that this plane will crash so they could take particular steps to prevent it. A simple free will defense may not be enough, but here’s where the three-dimensional Biblical worldview is helpful. God does some things, human creatures do some things, and then celestial agencies are also doing some things. If God, for reasons we’re not entirely informed about, has given Satan and his minions limited jurisdiction, then God can’t both grant that jurisdiction and unilaterally take it back. Satan can bring about evils God could have prevented but cannot, given the rules of engagement in a cosmic conflict.

So evil doesn’t mean God’s not omnipotent. It means He has set up certain rules and His word is good. But all of this may seem like an academic discussion. How does it work in real life to help us cope with suffering? When people are going through acute suffering, either their own or someone else’s, usually the last thing they need or desire is a kind of theoretical explanation. The best thing you can do is what Job’s friends initially did. They sat with him for a week without saying anything. Then they opened their mouths and got themselves into a lot of trouble. The best thing you can do for someone who’s suffering is show you care for them and have compassion for them. 

And in the end, we look to the cross. And we can trust the One who is willing to go to the cross for us. Even if we don’t understand why God is doing this or not doing this, we can ask: If God is willing to suffer and die for us in the person of Christ, what more could He do that He has not done? We can trust a God like that, even if we don’t understand. That’s pastorally where I want to start and end—with Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

—Read Part 2 of this Q&A here: “Trusting God’s purposes

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