Metro IG staff bulks up in prep for probes

October 5, 2018

The Metro Office of Inspector General (OIG) is gearing up for more investigations of the long-troubled transit agency as it seeks more independence from Metro officials, who are launching a $500 million, multiyear repair project.

Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington has hired 13 employees over the last 18 months, increasing his staff to 36 members, including 12 investigators, 13 auditors, three deputy inspector generals and one forensic analyst. Three other staffers serve in the OIG’s newly-created Office of Inspections, Evaluations and Special Projects.

In addition, Mr. Cherrington has written a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asking for independent funding to oversee Metro operations.

A former Army criminal investigator, Mr. Cherrington worked as a State Department investigator and helped probe former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. Metro hired him in March 2017, and he is only the second inspector general to oversee Metro, which first opened the office in 2007. He jokes that his job is like “turning the Titanic around,” calling himself “just a dumb night school cop.”

The stakes are high: The District, Virginia and Maryland for the first time have provided $500 million in annual dedicated funding, which Metro plans to use to rebuild station platforms and repair tracks.

“This is Metro’s last shot at this,” said Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans. “This money is important and needed to fix our system.”

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who has called for a system-wide maintenance and repair program, has praised Mr. Cherrington’s work. He also noted in an email that “an independent Inspector General’s Office is critical” to the transit agency, acknowledging the OIG’s longstanding struggle to separate its oversight from Metro’s management.

Roland Wong, who has managed the IT systems and computer forensic analysis for the OIG since 2008, told The Washington Times that he has caught Metro workers monitoring OIG computers four times. (Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told The Washington Post last year a “rogue employee” conducted the spying and was fired.)

Mr. Wong said he created a Hotmail email account in 2010 to make sure that Metro employees couldn’t snoop on sensitive information. Now he’s moving all OIG emails to an independent server.

“We want to make sure we’re segregated from their email so there’s no doubt,” he said.

In his letter to the Senate Homeland Security Committee last year, Mr. Cherrington noted the need to upgrade his office’s IT infrastructure in the wake of snooping by the “rogue employee.”

Under Mr. Cherrington, the OIG has completed 129 contract audits and 10 general audits, uncovering a host of issues such “weak security” for Metro Transit Police ammunition. Its investigations have caught a construction contractor bribing a Metro employee, a contractor trying to pass off another company’s rail transistor part as its own to win a Metro bid and a Metro employee using his work phone to solicit sex from a minor.

The OIG’s lack of independent funds became an issue last year, when Metro declined to pay for an outside mechanic to inspect a MetroAccess vehicle that Mr. Cherrington was investigating. His special agents also needed permission from Metro’s finance office for cash advances to run undercover operations, such as buying and tracing stolen Metro computers. Today, his office uses a local bank account for those costs.

Metro Board member Jim Corcoran pointed out that having the OIG’s budget as part of Metro’s makes it difficult to increase the office’s funding at a different rate than the rest of the transit agency’s departments.

“Some people call for an independent budget,” Mr. Corcoran said. “We’re actually looking at that as a board.”

The board did grant an $8 million special allotment to the OIG this fiscal year, bringing the total up to $5.8 million, but Mr. Evans said The Times he agrees the OIG needs “twice that money, or three times that amount.”

Two OIG employees who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal said a budget increase would allow more competitive salaries in the future.

“Pie in the sky, I would be able to recruit, pay, and provide incentives more in line with other IG offices, not Metro,” Mr. Cherrington said.

In the meantime, he’s wrestling with the “flawed” 2006 Metro compact that created the OIG and tied it to the transit agency’s human resources and procurement departments, which his teams often investigate.

The OIG also shares Metro’s legal counsel, Patty Lee, with whom Mr. Cherrington said he has a “good working relationship,” but that doesn’t solve the conflicts of interest.

“I need my own counsel,” the inspector general said.

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