Remember the Pentagon's $600 hammer? Its $1,000 toilet seat? Those 1983 revelations of profiligate defense spending touched off months of hearings and recriminations. Almost overlooked amid the hubbub was the man who started it all -- an unassuming Iowa farmer named Charles Ernest Grassley.
Until the Pentagon follies, no one paid the junior senator from the Hawkeye State much notice. Nor did anyone have great expectations for this Republican who was labeled an Iowa bumpkin destined for a single term. But don't underestimate Grassley. Since acting on whistleblower complaints about defense spending 20 years ago, Grassley has taken on fraud and abuse at almost every federal agency. In the process, he has become a champion for whistleblowers. He cajoles and threatens agency heads on their behalf and listens to their complaints.
Most important, in 1986 he helped embolden whistleblowers when he put teeth in the languishing False Claims Act. His legislation awarded people who reported government fraud up to 30% of the recovered damages. Since 1987, some 3,600 FCA cases have recovered $5.2 billion for taxpayers. "Whistleblowers stick their necks out. They're entitled to protection," says Grassley. In return, "I get valuable information to make sure taxpayers aren't defrauded."
"CONSCIENCE OF THE SENATE."
At 69, the senator pulls no punches, even when they land on fellow Republicans. Grassley's exposure of Pentagon waste embarrassed the new Reagan Administration just as it was trying to increase defense spending. When President George W. Bush's father was in the White House, Grassley accused the Navy of keeping its books with "willy-nilly precision." "Whether the Administration is Republican or Democratic, he has been the conscience of the Senate," says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project.
Grassley's latest target is a fellow Republican, Janet Rehnquist, daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the top agency watchdog at the Health & Human Services Dept., which runs Medicare and Medicaid. Grassley says Rehnquist has politicized her division and accuses her of lax enforcement while Medicare fraud runs amok.
Next on his list: the White House, which Grassley says is watering down post-Enron protections that he helped pass in the Sarbanes-Oxley law. His aggressive tack has some GOPers grumbling that Grassley isn't a "real Republican." They can keep grumbling. He dreams of the day when a President holds a Rose Garden ceremony for a whistleblower. Until then, Grassley says, "whistleblowers are still like a skunk at a picnic." He aims to fix that.
By Lorraine Woellert in Washington