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Several key government agency watchdog posts remain unfilled in the Trump era

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin testifies before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on February 15, 2018 in Washington, DC.
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Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin testifies before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on February 15, 2018 in Washington, DC.

As the White House struggles with ongoing departures of its senior staff, key vacancies throughout the executive branch charged with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse remain unfilled more than a year after President Donald Trump took office.

The latest example of the importance of those watchdogs came Wednesday with the release of a stinging internal investigation of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which found "failed leadership at multiple levels" during the Obama administration that put patients at a major hospital at risk.

The 150-page report painted a grim picture of communications breakdowns, chaos and spending waste at the government's second-largest department. The report found that at least three program offices directly under current VA Secretary David Shulkin's watch knew of "serious, persistent deficiencies" when he was VA undersecretary of health from 2015 to 2016.

The report represented the latest blow to Shulkin, whom Trump promoted to VA secretary last year. Shulkin told government investigators that he did "not recall" ever being notified of problems.

Despite Trump's campaign vows to "drain the swamp," his administration has been slow to hire agency watchdogs, known as inspectors general, tasked with reviewing the way the government conducts its business and spends taxpayers' money.

Of the 73 inspector general offices housed in various government agencies and departments, 14 of them are vacant or lead by temporary appointees, according to the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group.

The list of empty IG offices includes the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Interior, as well as the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and the CIA.

Together they oversee federal spending of more than $2 trillion, according to a CNBC analysis of data from government sources, including USASpending.gov, a website operated by the Treasury Department.

The inspector general role was established by Congress in 1976 in an effort to curb waste, fraud and abuse in what is now the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare, Medicaid and other social assistance programs. The role has since expanded to review spending and operations at dozens of government departments and agencies.

Not all of the empty IG jobs are Trump's responsibility; six nominees are awaiting approval from Congress. Two of the agencies with IG vacancies, the Postal Service and the Federal Election Commission, offer up their own nominations for congressional approval.

Trump recently attacked the Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked the IG's office to investigate alleged surveillance abuses by DOJ employees.

While they do not have prosecutorial powers, IG offices work closely with the Justice Department when evidence of fraud or other crimes are uncovered.

As the Trump administration copes with an unprecedented level of senior staff turnover, it's not clear how long those vacant offices will remain unfilled.

The latest to depart was Gary Cohn, the White House's chief economic advisor, who had clashed with the president over trade policy and argued strenuously against Trump's decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Trump insists the West Wing is seeing "no Chaos, only great Energy!" and that "Everyone wants to work in the White House."

"They all want a piece of the Oval Office," Trump told reporters at a news conference earlier this week.

More than a year after the inauguration, the Trump administration has seen some jobs unfilled and others subject to high turnover. The high-profile job of communications director will soon be open for the fifth time after the departure of its current occupant, Hope Hicks.

"They are left with vacancies atop of vacancies," Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas of the Brookings Institution told the Associated Press. She pegs the departure rate for senior staff at 40 percent in just over a year.

"That kind of turnover creates a lot of disruption," she said, noting the loss of institutional knowledge and relationships with agencies and Congress.

— The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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