Blog: Lawsuit Alleges the Government Office Overseeing Accountability is the Least Accountable

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

The argument in this country about whether or not government should be big or small never concerns itself with how specific government should be.

We are, by and large, a "general" government. We have departments committed to general subjects, such as education and health, the environment and agriculture, justice and veterans affairs. This is the easiest way to capture the broad areas government business entails. These are the issues that warrant individual attention — that sometimes draw committees and subcommittees for deeper consideration.

And there are offices that serve more specific roles within the government. The Government Accountability Office, for one, appears as though it has its mission spelled out for it — clearly. By its name alone, you can guess that the office’s responsibility is to ensure accountability on the part of the other various departments within the government. And yet, there seems to be confusion within the department about exactly how to be accountable.

On Monday we learned the Coalition for Educational Success is suing the Department of Education over a report that accused the for-profit sector of education of deception and questionable marketing practices. According to The Chicago Tribune, “the Dec. 9 lawsuit stems from the coalition’s failed efforts to gain access to documents, notes and videotapes” that the GAO mentioned in testimony before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Last summer, Gregory Kutz, managing director of the Government Accountability Office, sat before the HELP Committee and presented the findings. Kutz told the committee that all 15 for-profit colleges visited by secret shoppers – in the guise of inquiring student prospects – encouraged fraud and engaged in deceptive and questionable marketing practices. He introduced video clips and, at times, kept a wry smile on his face as recruiters at the schools seemed to trip on whatever booby-trap question investigators set.

About three months later, the GAO reissued the 27-page report about its investigation with several revisions to key passages. This wasn’t done on camera before a live audience of government officials and industry leaders. The notation was quietly posted on the GAO’s website on Nov. 30. Kutz wasn’t there to smile — or frown. The Washington Post did all the work, publishing their own account that compared the original language with the revised versions. The revisions almost entirely cast for-profit schools in a different, more positive light.

Of course, the GAO contends the revisions changed nothing about the overall message of the report and augmented none of its findings. But that’s wrong, too. The GAO report was the most significant piece of evidence in the Department of Education’s case against for-profit schools. Maintaining a severely flawed report as the centerpiece of your argument is a tragic mistake. The reports credibility has been irreparably damaged, and so has the GAO’s role in this battle.

The concept of meeting deadlines and supplying information as required through specific government requests apparently isn’t what the GAO considers “accountability.” And, keep in mind, this isn’t simple government inefficiency. The request didn’t simply get lost or substituted by some other request of higher importance. The withholding of information was likely done intentionally, but for what purpose?

The Coalition for Educational Success’ lawsuit might shed some light on why the materials were never supplied. Taken together with the mistakes found in the report, the deliberate stonewalling doesn’t create the picture of an office willing to be accountable.

The DOE’s curious behavior through the negotiated rulemaking process opens it up to further scrutiny. This is not the last lawsuit we’ll see. Most of us were wondering when the lawsuits targeting the Department of Education’s new regulations of the for-profit education sector were going to begin. I personally thought it would be after the final gainful employment rule language was made public. This lawsuit could possibly postpone the final revealing of that language.

Hopefully that moment won’t be the showboat affair we saw with Kutz last summer. Something about that moment didn’t feel right to us. Our first reactions are often the most telling. I won’t forget the feeling I had as Kutz made his way through the report. There was something … production-like about it. The set-ups for the videos. The audience. Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) clarifying questions.

Government shouldn’t look like that. Government should never be dramatic. Government should never be witty or wry. The best governments are the ones that quietly go about their business. Boring government is the best government, going about its tasks, namely collecting tax money, doling it out to the right recipients, taking care of infrastructure, ensuring that its people are safe, and seeing that the laws are responsible and effective. No matter how boring it is, though, government should at least live up to its name.

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