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Obey Overhauls Investigative Unit

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) replaced the chief of the committee’s troubled investigative team last month with a senior aide and plans to reinvigorate the unit’s oversight function after it was largely dismantled last year.

Obey appointed his deputy staff director, David Pomerantz, to replace Robert Pearre, who had served for more than three years at the helm of the Surveys and Investigations team.

Then-Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) fired 60 contractors in October without prior notice, leaving about 15 permanent staffers on the investigations team. Lewis’ decision effectively stalled several probes, including a high-profile review of Hurricane Katrina spending that the committee had promised to make public.

A Democratic Appropriations staffer said that the team would be rebuilt, although it is unclear if it will end up larger or smaller than it was before the October firings. “It has to be driven by the oversight needs, and there’s a lot of them,” the staffer said. “S&I is going to be busy and we’ll staff up to meet that.”

Obey chose to name Pomerantz to head the team because of his committee experience, the staffer said.

“One of the issues we were trying to deal with is how to make the S&I staff’s product relevant to the committee,” the aide said. Pomerantz is “somebody with committee experience who knows how the House works and knows more importantly the kind of information that makes the House work.”

The investigative team tended to file lengthy reports after long periods of time, when sometimes only a single sheet of paper or a single fact would suffice. “You don’t need a book all the time,” the staffer said.

Democrats also are considering whether to restart a series of stalled investigations, including the Hurricane Katrina probe, which fell by the wayside after Lewis dismissed the team leader and other contractors shortly before they were to deliver their final report.

“In general we’re going to be looking at all of the oversight things including Katrina to see if we need to do the work,” the aide said, noting that other committees and agencies are also investigating. “From my perspective, we’re the appropriators, we’re the ones who spent tens of billions and we have a responsibility to make sure that money is well-spent.”

Democrats plan to integrate the investigative team with the regular oversight work of the committee, which has expanded significantly since the Democrats took over the majority. The Democrats also are looking to augment the staff with more detailees from the GAO, the FBI and inspectors general’s offices.

The committee’s investigative team was launched in 1943 in an unusual alliance with the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. Neither the Senate Appropriations Committee nor any other committee has had such a large team of investigators, particularly one staffed largely by former high-ranking employees of the FBI, CIA and the Department of Defense, many with high-level security clearances.

The team’s reports are usually kept hidden, but the committee is considering whether more reports should be made public. Both Democrats and Republicans have to sign off on any of the team’s investigations.

The investigations team has faced years of turmoil, with a perception among some former investigators that a lack of Republican desire for tough oversight of the Bush administration and other sensitive issues had kept investigations from getting off the ground or quashed them in midstream.

Pearre himself had come under scrutiny after he penned a memo to his staff in 2005 in which he urged investigators to assume that government bureaucrats were lying and said he wanted to see “blood on the floor.”

Lewis, who now serves as Appropriations ranking member, declined to comment about the decision to replace Pearre with Pomerantz, saying he had not focused on it.

Pearre also declined comment on the decision to replace him as chief.

Although Lewis’ spokesman last year said that some of their work had been poor, former investigators said that they had saved billions of dollars for the government over the years by finding waste and abuse, and other members of the committee praised their work, including former Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.), who said Lewis had not consulted him about the firings.

Former investigators also have said that Pearre ordered them to stop an investigation in 2005 into alleged bid-rigging and waste involving hundreds of millions of dollars in secret Capitol Hill security contracts. The investigators said that the probe, approved by Young and Obey, had been looking into allegations that a Department of Defense employee had received Redskins tickets, golf clubs and other kickbacks from contractors. Investigators also were probing concerns by some contractors that the Capitol security upgrades would fail to work, endangering people in the event of an attack.

Ted Van Der Meid, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) chief counsel, had sought to quash the probe and hindered the investigators’ work, the former investigators said.

Lewis’ spokesman at the time called the former investigators’ charges “sour grapes” and said the probe into the security contracts was ongoing.

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