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Published: Wednesday, 12/11/2002

Delay and conquer

Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist presided over a divided Supreme Court that moved the Florida election into George W. Bush's column. Now his daughter, Janet Rehnquist, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is being investigated by Congress for delaying an audit of Florida's pension until after Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election.

No one knows whether the delay, unprecedented if one believes her former deputy, would have affected the governor's winning margin.

Florida had withdrawn money from its pension fund after deciding the state had put in more than it needed to meet obligations. But the federal government contributes to Florida's pension fund for people who work on federal-state programs like Medicaid. Federal auditors were stalled in their pursuit to see if the federal government got its share.

It's a valid question because the fund has been run by political rubes. It is overseen by the State Board of Administration, which had invested and lost $300 million in Enron, the now bankrupt energy company run by President Bush's old Texas friend, Ken Lay.

The situation has even some congressional Republicans concerned. The governor's people are claiming the delay was requested because the pension fund was in transition between old and new directors, a suitably fuzzy excuse.

Patrick McFarland, inspector general for the Office of Personnel Management and the government's longest-serving IG, can't recall any audit delayed for anything.

Tom Rosiewicz, now retired as deputy inspector general for HHS audits, said never in his 25 years with the agency could he recall that an inspector general personally intervened to delay an audit.

And Ms. Rehnquist, he said, ordered him to make two delays at the request of Governor Bush. That smells to us of the coziest kind of rotten government and of a privileged group using government to advance its own agendas.

The General Accounting Office and the FBI-led Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency are looking into aspects of this case. More important, Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who in January takes over the Senate Finance Committee, has his staff looking into it.

Senator Grassley knows that the strength of the nation depends not only on the integrity of public institutions but the appearance of integrity. Ms. Rehnquist doesn't get either concept. Hopefully he can withstand the pressure they put on him to fall into their perversely anti-public line.

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