Inspectors general are government's internal watchdogs; their job is to detect and prevent mismanagement, fraud and other problems.
Independence and impartiality are critical if they are to be effective or credible. That's obvious — except perhaps to the Beshear appointees in charge of Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Cabinet officials are defending their decision last year to hire the spouse of one of the cabinet's top-ranking officials for a new $50,237 a year position in the cabinet's Office of Inspector General.
Because neither spouse supervises the other and because Bob James is assigned to handle administrative matters such as budgets and policy — not investigations — there is no conflict of interest, according to a statement from the cabinet reported last week by The Courier-Journal's Deborah Yetter.
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The cabinet contends there is no conflict despite the fact that Teresa James, who earns $107,000 a year, is commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, the sprawling agency that investigates abuse and neglect of children and adults; determines eligibility for welfare, food benefits and Medicaid; oversees foster care and adoption, and coordinates child care subsidies, training and quality ratings.
Monitoring all those operations is a huge part of what the Office of Inspector General is supposed to do. It's not hard to imagine how the presence of the commissioner's spouse could have a chilling effect on discussions and investigations.
The 266-employee office also licenses and inspects nursing homes, day-care centers, health-care facilities and operates the prescription drug tracking system.
What would appear to be a conflict to almost anyone else comes at a particularly inopportune time. Kentucky's chronically beleaguered child-protective services are suffering from rapid turnover of social workers, resulting in vacancy rates of 20 to 35 percent in some offices.
In a recent interview, Teresa James told the C-J's Yetter that relatively low pay, starting at $32,000 a year, and high job stress make it hard to recruit workers.
Workers also blame mismanagement and unworkable caseloads.
The agency's Northern Kentucky office recently lost track of 92 cases of alleged child abuse or neglect. Meanwhile, Yetter reports, a social worker in Northern Kentucky is facing punishment and possible firing for checking on a child whose family was worried about her but whose case, unbeknownst to the social worker, had been closed.
While the action may have been a violation of policy, punishing a social worker for going out of her way to protect a child is an unfortunate signal to the demoralized, depleted ranks of child-protective workers.
A state panel charged with reviewing child fatalities has recommended studying child-protective workers' caseloads.
That's a good idea — the kind of thing the inspector general should investigate.