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Denali Commission inspector general: Fire me, stop funding my agency in Alaska

David A. Fahrenthold

Mike Marsh is a federal employee who wrote to Congress this summer with an unusual proposal to save the government money.

Fire me, Marsh told them. And everyone I work with.

"I have concluded that (my agency) is a congressional experiment that hasn't worked out in practice," wrote Marsh, who is the inspector general for the Denali Commission, an economic-development agency based in Alaska. "I recommend that Congress put its money elsewhere."

This has been tried before. But not often. Old Washington hands could remember only two other federal workers who had ever lobbied publicly to have themselves defunded. One was a high-level Ronald Reagan appointee. One was a lowly weather observer.

They both failed. Meaning they weren't fired.

Marsh seems likely to fail, too -- even though his requests arrived in Washington in the middle of a battle to cut the budget. His agency seems protected by one of Washington's most enduring customs: the defense of home-state giveaways, even in times of national austerity.

For now, the main impact of his request seems to be within his small agency -- where the great debate over spending has turned into a smaller, tenser confrontation among colleagues.

Until a Washington Post reporter called, Marsh's fellow employees did not actually know he was lobbying to have them cut off.

"No. Never heard that," Joel Neimeyer, the top federal official at the Denali Commission, said when a reporter called. "Thank you for sharing," he said. Still processing it. This was a man he and other staffers had gone to dinner with: Neimeyer thought he was "charming with a pretty good sense of humor."

"What do you think of him sharing it with Congress and not the agency?" Neimeyer asked.

Marsh sent his first requests to Washington this summer. Then, this month -- as Congress fought a battle over next year's budget -- he sent another letter, this one to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. He said his opponents in the agency were "shooting the messenger, tackling the referee, or berating the pathologist who has to convey the news one would prefer not to hear."

He's right that they're not happy.

"He's done a great job of flummoxing our ability to serve these communities any better," Vince Beltrami, a Denali Commission member and a leader of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said Tuesday when the commission met in Anchorage.

They spent more than an hour talking about Marsh. They didn't spent any time talking to him, though, because he refused to show up.

"Mike Marsh, are you online?" Neimeyer said.

Silence.

"Mike, or anyone representing Mike, are you online?" he repeated.

So he hadn't even called in.

In today's federal government -- with budget cuts looming over most agencies -- what Marsh did is gob-smacking. This is the duck that hunted himself.

But Marsh believes there is a strong and convincing case for his own unemployment. He laid it out in seven pages, complete with graphics and a bibliography, and sent it to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and to the Office of Management and Budget.

And to The Washington Post.

"At this point, I recommend that Congress no longer send Denali an annual 'base' appropriation," Marsh wrote. Last year, that base appropriation from Congress was about $10.6 million. Marsh doesn't say the agency has to die, necessarily. It just has to go away. After leaving the federal government, he says, it might survive as an independent nonprofit.

That would be an unusual end for an unusual agency. The Denali Commission began in 1998, as a pet project of then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. It is not connected to Denali National Park: Both are named for Alaska's iconic mountain peak. The commission's purpose was to help people in rural Alaska, by building power plants, offering job training and improving health care.

It became the channel for a great river of pork. In 2006, in the heyday of both Stevens himself and congressional earmark spending, he sent $150 million flowing through the agency.

But then, in 2008, Stevens lost an election. Then, in 2010, Stevens died. Then earmarks were banned.

The river shrank. But it didn't stop.

The Denali Commission still funnels federal grants to projects in the state, with a staff of about 12. It still enjoys strong support from Alaska's three-member congressional delegation, which fought presidential efforts to cut its funding. And the Alaska lawmakers have proposed a reauthorization measure designed to give the commission a lasting stream of funding.

"We've been successful the last several years, as you know, to keep the money in there," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. He believes the commission provides valuable coordination, to make sure grant money reaches the places where it would help the most.

And he also believes that if it were going to die, it would be dead already.

"Think about it. The last 4 1/2 years, five years -- this would be the time that they slice it to zero," Begich said. Instead, "it's been pretty maintained and stabilized."

To Marsh, however, the commission is an idea that time has proved wrong. For one thing, he says, it often builds projects -- power plants or medical clinics -- in tiny towns that won't have the resources to keep them running.

For another thing, Marsh says, the commission is a middleman where a middleman isn't needed.

If the U.S. government wants to pay for primary-care clinics in Alaska, he told Congress, it should simply send the money straight to the state or to tribal governments that build medical clinics. Why pass it through a little office in Anchorage first?

If Congress listened, that would be the end of Marsh's job, too.

He does not seem too bothered. "There are certain things in life that aren't designed to be done alone," he wrote in an email. Meaning that this inspector general's job is too much work for one person anyway.

Marsh is a former prosecutor who lives in Phoenix and commutes to Alaska only when he needs to. Before he took this job, he audited state agencies for the Alaska government. "I have a long history of upsetting Alaskans," Marsh wrote in an email.

He would not be interviewed in person for this story, saying inspector-general rules won't allow it. He would not allow himself to be photographed.

"discontinue doing what we are doing"

It is a rare thing, of course, that anybody stands up and calls himself a human boondoggle. Most federal workers find their jobs -- and their agencies -- meaningful.

Those who don't, quit. Those who don't quit usually just keep their mouths shut.

But not all of them.

"The first thing that I would urge the Congress to do -- and I urge this not from the perspective of being a Republican or a Democrat, but a citizen who pays taxes -- would be to discontinue doing what we are doing," said Orson Swindle, who headed an agency called the Economic Development Administration in the Reagan administration.

Swindle was a former Vietnam prisoner of war who -- with Reagan's backing -- wanted to get rid of his own agency. It had become an infamous delivery system for Congress' pork, funding such pet projects as an attempt to build the Great Pyramids of Indiana.

But Congress liked it the way it was. The agency stayed.

Eventually, Swindle quit, disappointed but not surprised: "We're sitting there feeding the beast that's going to eat us," he says now of the deficit.

A few years later, in 1993, Vice President Al Gore got another such request, in a letter from rural Kansas.

"I feel like that person in the old movie who writes in lipstick on bathroom mirrors, "Stop me before I kill again,' " Bruce Bair of Schoenchen, Kan., wrote to Gore. "However, in my case, the legend should be, 'Stop me before I steal some more.' "

Bair was a weather observer for the Federal Aviation Administration, stationed at a little-used airfield in Russell, Kan. Bair was a human backup, to relay weather reports to pilots if the weather machine ever broke.

It never broke. So Bair felt he was "stealing" his salary of about $11 an hour. Gore read the letter and cited it prominently in his "Reinventing Government" program. But Bair wasn't fired. In fact, when he quit, the government hired somebody to replace him. Eventually, the FAA shut down the weather station at Russell Airport, home town of longtime Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan.

Today, Bair recalls the episode with a sense of satisfaction: He hated his boss. So there was a thrill in telling the world what a waste they all were.

"I didn't think there was a chance in a million that any one would ever read that letter," Bair wrote in an email recently. "I got revenge, all right."

That's the list. Two. Now, three.

YOUNG: "Mission continues to be critical"

In Marsh's case, his request has attracted attention from the oversight committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who sent a letter on Monday asking for Marsh's independence to be respected.

The answer here "may be reform. It may be shutting the whole thing down. But clearly this auditor is on to something," said McCaskill, a former state auditor who did tough evaluations of Missouri agencies.

But the commission is a long way from dead. Just this summer, an Ohio congressman suggested cutting it -- along with similar agencies that pay for development in the Appalachians, the Mississippi Delta and other regions.

The House voted. The commissions all survived.

And in Alaska, the tables have already been turned on Marsh. The Government Accountability Office is now doing an audit of him, at the request of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Many at the commission -- and some on Capitol Hill -- have begun to wonder why the agency needs an inspector general who lives in Arizona.

Or one who wants to inspect his agency right out of existence.

"The Denali Commission's mission continues to be critical," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in a written statement. "Unfortunately, all IGs are not created equal."

 


By DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD
The Washington Post