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THE NATION

The Scrutinizer Finds Himself Under Scrutiny

Joseph Schmitz, for three years in charge of investigating waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, is now the focus of complaints.

September 25, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Joseph E. Schmitz took over as the Pentagon's inspector general in 2002, the largest watchdog organization in the federal government was under fire for failing to fully investigate a senior official, falsifying internal documents and mistreating whistle-blowers. He publicly pledged to clean it up.

Three years later, similar accusations now surround Schmitz.

Schmitz slowed or blocked investigations of senior Bush administration officials, spent taxpayer money on pet projects and accepted gifts that may have violated ethics guidelines, according to interviews with current and former senior officials in the inspector general's office, congressional investigators and a review of internal e-mail and other documents.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Pentagon watchdog -- An article in Sunday's Section A about former Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz misspelled the first name of his son, Philip J. Schmitz, as Phillip.

Schmitz also drew scrutiny for his unusual fascination with Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, a Revolutionary War hero who is considered the military's first true inspector general. Schmitz even replaced the official inspector general's seal in offices nationwide with a new one bearing the Von Steuben family motto, according to the documents and interviews.

The case has raised troubling questions about Schmitz as well as the Defense Department's commitment to combating waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers' money, especially in politically sensitive cases.

Schmitz comes from a family that is no stranger to controversy. His father was the ultraconservative Orange County congressman John G. Schmitz, who once ran for president but whose political career ended after he admitted having an affair with a German immigrant suspected of child abuse. Schmitz's sister is Mary Kay Letourneau, the Washington state teacher who served more than seven years in prison after a 1997 conviction for rape after having sex with a sixth-grade pupil with whom she had two children. After Letourneau's release from prison, she and the former pupil, now an adult, married each other.

Schmitz, who resigned on Sept. 10 to take a job with the parent company of defense contractor Blackwater USA, is now the target of a congressional inquiry and a review by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, the oversight body responsible for investigating inspectors general, according to the documents and interviews.

"I've seen this office become involved in many questionable projects despite strong and persistent opposition from senior staff," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, whose office is pursuing complaints about Schmitz. "It appears to me that this has created a lack of respect and trust, and has resulted in an ineffective Office of the Inspector General."

In a brief response to written questions, Schmitz said it had been "an honor to serve the American people as inspector general of the Department of Defense." He listed a series of accomplishments, from eliminating three layers of management to establishing a "new mission, vision and core values."

Without giving specifics, Schmitz also said that some of The Times' questions "appear to include false or misleading assumptions and/or law enforcement sensitive information." He directed further inquiries to the inspector general's office, which declined to answer the questions.

Schmitz's allies said he was being persecuted. One senior Pentagon official defended Schmitz by saying that he was concerned about protecting the reputation of senior officials in Washington, where political enemies can cause trouble with an anonymous hotline tip.

At a ceremony earlier this month, acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England presented Schmitz with a distinguished public service award for "inspiring a culture of integrity, accountability and intelligent risk-taking." The White House said his five years in the Navy and 18 years as a reservist qualified him for the job.

Current and former colleagues described Schmitz, a former attorney for the Washington law firm Patton Boggs, as an intelligent but easily distracted leader who seemed to obsess over details.

They described a management style in which Schmitz asked for updates on personal projects -- such as a new bathroom in his executive suite or the hiring of a speechwriter -- while avoiding substantive issues such as tight budgets. Schmitz never won approval for the bathroom or the speechwriter.

He paid close attention, however, to the investigations of senior Bush administration appointees. At one point, investigators even stopped telling Schmitz who was under investigation, substituting letter codes for the names of individuals during weekly briefings for fear that Schmitz would leak the information to Pentagon superiors, according to a senior Pentagon official.

"He became very involved in political investigations that he had no business getting involved in," said another senior official in the inspector general's office.

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