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Bailout lacks oversight despite billions pledged

While money has been pouring out of program, no formal action has been taken to fill independent watchdog posts established by Congress.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In the six weeks since lawmakers approved the Treasury's massive bailout of financial firms, the government has poured money into the country's largest banks, recruited smaller banks into the program and repeatedly widened its scope to cover yet other types of businesses, from insurers to consumer lenders.

Along the way, the Bush administration has committed $290 billion of the $700 billion rescue package.

Yet for all this activity, no formal action has been taken to fill the independent oversight posts established by Congress when it approved the bailout to prevent corruption and government waste. Nor has the first monitoring report required by lawmakers been completed, though the initial deadline has passed.

"It's a mess," said Eric M. Thorson, the Treasury Department's inspector general, who has been working to oversee the bailout program until the newly created position of special inspector general is filled. "I don't think anyone understands right now how we're going to do proper oversight of this thing."

In approving the rescue package, lawmakers trumpeted provisions in the legislation that established layers of independent scrutiny, including a special inspector general to be nominated by the White House and a congressional oversight panel to be named by lawmakers themselves.

Squabbling and logjams
Some lawmakers and their aides fear that political squabbling on Capitol Hill and bureaucratic logjams could delay their work for months. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office, which also has some oversight responsibilities, is worried about the difficulty of hiring people who can understand the intensely complicated financial work involved.

The legislation grants the special inspector, who is expected to be the primary overseer of the program, a budget of $50 million. The measure calls for him to conduct audits and investigations of how the government spends money under the bailout program, including on equity investments in firms. In particular, he is to report about any assets acquired and their value, plus an explanation of why they were acquired and details on individuals or companies involved in the transactions.

The leading candidate for the post is Neil M. Barofsky, a federal prosecutor in New York, and his nomination could come as soon as this week, according to people familiar with the matter.

Barofsky, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, is the chief of the office's mortgage fraud group and the lead prosecutor in the $2.4 billion accounting-fraud case against former executives of the collapsed financial firm Refco. He was formerly a white-collar criminal defense attorney in New York.

It is unclear that Barofsky would be confirmed by the Senate, as required, anytime soon. One complicating factor is a battle between the Finance and Banking committees over which has jurisdiction over the confirmation process. Spokeswomen for both panels said the issue has not been resolved and may not be until after President Bush names his choice.

Nonetheless, the finance committee has scheduled a hearing for Monday afternoon in the event that a nominee is named.

Several congressional aides, however, said they did not understand how the Senate could possibly do all the proper vetting for such a critical appointment in just a few days. Thorson's confirmation process, for example, took nearly a year. But Treasury officials and Senate aides worry that if the nominee is not confirmed next week, when Congress is back in town for a lame-duck session, then the process might be delayed well into next year.

Some Republican lawmakers have said they are also concerned that Democrats may avoid acting on the nomination so that Barack Obama can choose his own special inspector general after he becomes president. But people familiar with the matter said Barofsky, the leading candidate for the position, would be palatable to the incoming administration because he supported Obama.

In the meantime, Thorson is trying to oversee the program in addition to his other responsibilities. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. asked him to take on those duties. Thorson has a few dozen people working on the program, but none are doing so full time. He said there should be at least 100 people in the new special inspector general's office.

Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the White House for not moving more quickly to name an appointee.

"Considering how taxpayers' money around Washington isn't respected, a day shouldn't go by without having an inspector general checking on it," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Finance Committee.

Tony Fratto, deputy White House press secretary, declined to comment on the nominee or when he or she would be named but said there is adequate scrutiny of the bailout.

"No program in the history of the federal government has had more layers of oversight and reporting and transparency," he said.

For their part, lawmakers have yet to nominate the five-member Congressional Oversight Panel, though leaders of both parties said they hoped they would be named by the end of the month and start work by December. People familiar with the matter said possible nominees included current and former government and industry officials, though some had to recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest.

The panel's mandate is to look at the use of Paulson's authority and the impact of the program on the financial markets and mortgage crisis.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said his concerns about oversight diminished after the Treasury program's focus shifted from purchases of financial firms' troubled assets to capital injections into companies. "The concern was they'd be buying assets and we wouldn't know the price," Frank said. The revised bailout program "doesn't have the conflicts of interest and the other things people were concerned about."

The delays in selecting both the special inspector general and the congressional oversight panel have prevented the release of a detailed oversight report required in the legislation. Under the law, the congressional panel was required to release a report 30 days after the bailout program began, a deadline that has passed. It is supposed to issue a more elaborate report on the financial regulatory process by Jan. 20, a deadline congressional aides said will be nearly impossible to make.

The special inspector general is supposed to release a report within 60 days of his confirmation. Though Thorson, the Treasury inspector general, is not required to prepare a report, he said he might feel obligated to issue one if the Senate does not confirm a special inspector by Monday.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is also required by the legislation to conduct oversight of the program. The agency's mission is to look at the overall performance of the initiative and its effect on the financial system.

The GAO has dedicated about 20 people to look at the bailout and has office space at the Treasury Department. Agency officials said they expect to issue a brief report on the program, as mandated by the legislation, within the next month.

The legislation also created a body called the Financial Stability Oversight Board, whose five members include Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. But it has no staff of its own, and few expect that policymakers can conduct oversight of themselves. "It's sort of a joke in terms of oversight," a congressional aide said.

Staff writers Lori Montgomery and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.