US lawmaker takes aim at State Department auditor

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WASHINGTON, Sep 29 (Reuters) A US congressional oversight committee accused the State Department's inspector general of threatening to fire several of his staff if they cooperated with an investigation into his conduct.

In a letter to Inspector General Howard Krongard, Rep.

Henry Waxman accused Krongard for the second time in 10 days of interfering with a probe by the House of Representatives oversight committee the California Democrat chairs.

The panel is looking into whether Krongard, who acts as an independent internal investigator for the State Department, failed to examine claims of government waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq and elsewhere so as not to embarrass the Bush administration.

''You interfered in ongoing investigations in order to protect the State Department and the White House from political embarrassment,'' said Waxman in his letter. ''The committee will not tolerate any intimidation of potential witnesses.'' In a statement released yesterday, the inspector general's office said its staff would cooperate with the committee but did not address any of the allegations made by Waxman.

''The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has cooperated with and will continue to cooperate with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's investigation,'' the statement said.

''Furthermore, the OIG will continue to make any OIG employee available to speak with the committee, if they choose,'' it added.

Naming two former senior officials and two current State Department employees as well as other unidentified staff, Waxman said senior staff from Krongard's office used coercive tactics to keep information from the committee.

''This week, several current employees in your office, including two who have agreed to go on the record -- informed the committee that your senior staff attempted to coerce them not to cooperate with the committee's inquiry and threatened their jobs and careers,'' wrote Waxman.

The two officials, named as Special Agent Ron Militana and Assistant Special Agent in Charge Brian Rubendall both work in the investigations division of Krongard's office, Waxman said.

He said the two agents were approached by Krongard's congressional affairs liaison and an attorney in the counsel's office about being interviewed by Waxman's committee.

He said the two were told they could ''suffer retaliation'' directly from Krongard if they cooperated and would have no protection against reprisal.

''Howard can fire you. It would affect your ability to get another job,'' one of the officials was quoted in the letter as telling the agents.

Waxman said other unnamed employees had raised similar complaints. ''I am appalled by these reports,'' said Waxman, adding that as an inspector general his role should be to protect whistle-blowers.

''It is unclear whether you directed your senior staff to engage in these activities or whether they took matters into their own hands.'' Earlier this week, Waxman accused U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of interfering in another investigation his committee is doing into the recent killings of 11 Iraqis by State Department security contractor Blackwater.

Rice's staff said there had been a ''misunderstanding'' with Waxman's office and that State Department employees had been asked to cooperate with his committee.

Reuters MP VP0448

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