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Presentation by The Honorable David M. Walker: Comptroller General of 
the United States: 

"Doing What's Right" 

Speech before the Conference on Public Service and the Law: 

The University of Virginia law school: 

Charlottesville, Virginia: 

March 17, 2006: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 


Thank you, Susan, for that kind introduction. As you may know, Susan is 
a graduate of this law school and someone whose advice and counsel I 
have valued since she joined us as an Associate General Counsel five 
years ago. I know many students here tonight are weighing public 
service against private practice. Susan is a great example of someone 
who, after 20 successful years in private practice, recognized that 
public service could offer even greater rewards. As she mentioned, 
Susan is also someone who was attracted to GAO for its core values of 
accountability, integrity, and reliability, and she has done an 
outstanding job of applying them to our work on behalf of Congress and 
the American people. 

I'm also happy to see several University of Virginia (UVA) students who 
will be joining GAO later this year. They are Elizabeth Beardsley, Lisa 
Hovey, and A. J. Stephens. I want to thank Dean Jeffries for his kind 
invitation to speak to you this evening at the start of this important 
annual conference. I also want to recognize Rachel Cella and Alex Pyke, 
the student co-chairs of this year's event. 

Finally, I'd like to express my appreciation to Mortimer Caplin, the 
namesake of UVA's Public Service Center and the benefactor of many 
programs and scholarships on this campus. As you know, Mr. Caplin was a 
prominent tax professor here at UVA, served as Internal Revenue Service 
(IRS) Comissioner under President Kennedy, and in recent decades has 
had a distinguished career in private practice. Clearly, he is a man 
for all seasons and a man for all sectors. Mort, thanks for being here 
this evening. 

I know the University of Virginia has a long and proud tradition of 
student self-government. Central to this tradition is the school's 
honor code, which, for more than 150 years has set a zero-tolerance 
standard for any student caught lying, cheating, or stealing. It's 
somewhat disappointing to realize that only a handful of schools, 
including the military academies, have instituted and enforced such a 
code. I firmly believe that the issue of character deserves far more 
discussion and far more emphasis in American society, in general, and 
in our educational system, in particular. Clearly, grades and 
extracurricular activities matter, but it seems to me that it's equally 
important for a student to have a strong character and a well-developed 
sense of right and wrong. 

The founder of this University, Thomas Jefferson, recognized that the 
law and public service are two areas where integrity is essential. 
Society expects public officials, lawyers, Certified Public Accountants 
(CPA), and other professionals to be models of good conduct. Clearly, 
in recent years, some of these individuals haven't lived up to those 
expectations. Many of them have paid a heavy personal price, and the 
reputations of their organizations, institutions, and professions have 
been tainted. My agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office 
(GAO), takes seriously its responsibility to lead by example both 
inside and outside of government. After all, you can't put a price on 
the GAO brand name, and we work hard every day, as we have for the last 
85 years, to protect and enhance our reputation for honesty and 

GAO's Office of General Counsel plays an important role in that effort. 
Our attorneys weigh in on everything from bid protest decisions to 
evaluations of federal programs and policies, to the legality and even 
the constitutionality of various agency actions. But our attorneys do 
far more than say "yea" or "nay." They play a key role in helping us to 
maximize value, manage risk, and ensure that GAO adheres to the highest 
ethical standards. 

The philosopher and missionary Albert Schweitzer said, "Example is not 
the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing." As anyone 
who knows me will tell you, I'm a big believer in the principle of 
"leading by example." In my view, leadership provides both an 
opportunity and an obligation to help show others the way forward and 
demonstrate how things can and should be done. Whether in government or 
private industry, those at the top must set the professional and 
ethical tone for the rest of their organization. After all, leaders who 
are credible and trusted are more likely to motivate and inspire 

Successful leaders also take seriously their stewardship 
responsibilities, not just to their organizations and its stakeholders 
but to society as a whole and to future generations. In my view, every 
leader should try to leave his or her organization not just better off 
than when they came but better positioned for the future. This is 
equally true for a federal agency, a major corporation, or a nonprofit 

GAO's Core Values: 

Soon after I came to GAO in 1998, the agency officially adopted a set 
of three core values: accountability, integrity, and reliability. These 
core values supplement the requirements established by law and by 
professional standards, such as the Code of Professional Responsibility 
for our lawyers and Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards 
for our auditors and analysts. If you come to Washington, D.C., you can 
see these core values over the entrance to GAO's headquarters. They 
appear on the cover of every blue-book report we issue. More 
importantly, they are in the hearts and minds of every GAO employee. 

* Accountability describes what GAO does. Simply put, we help to ensure 
the accountability of executive branch programs and agencies to 
Congress and the American people. 

* Integrity describes the character of GAO's people. On every 
assignment, GAO employees are required to be professional, objective, 
fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced. If fact, 
they have to certify this on every job. 

* Reliability refers to the quality of GAO's work. Reliability is why 
members of Congress from both sides of the aisle regularly use GAO 
reports and other products as the basis for hearings, press 
conferences, floor debates, and legislation. Anyone who reads a GAO 
study can and should have confidence in the facts and analysis it 
contains. In fact, two recent peer reviews have cited GAO for its 
outstanding work and quality assurance procedures. 

These core values guide everything we do. For example, they help guide 
our dealings with our major client--the Congress of the United States. 
It's important that we deal fairly and consistently with every member 
of Congress who requests a GAO study. Frankly, we don't accept every 
job we're asked to do. Some requests are beyond GAO's scope of 
authority, some requests are clearly politically motivated, and some 
requests would have us look at only one side of an issue. With core 
values, we can sort through issues like these quickly and equitably. 

We have only to look to recent accountability failures in the private 
sector to see what happens when individuals lack or stray from a set of 
core values. At Enron, Worldcom, and other companies, the unethical 
behavior of sometimes just a few corporate executives, auditors, and 
other professionals led to bankruptcies and restatements that have 
harmed countless shareholders, employees, and retirees. Many innocent 
parties lost their investments, their jobs, and their pensions. And 
some guilty parties lost their reputations and even their freedom. 

Not surprisingly, public confidence in the integrity of the corporate 
financial reporting process took a big hit, and I see that one of 
tomorrow's panels will be addressing the topic of Corporate 
Responsibility. In fact, one of the largest and most respected 
accounting firms in the world, one where I was a partner for almost a 
decade, paid the ultimate price. In less than two years, Arthur 
Andersen went from the CPA profession's "global gold standard" to gone. 
Why? Because a few professionals didn't properly exercise their 
professional responsibilities, Andersen's leaders didn't take the 
situation seriously enough, and the Justice Department then indicted 
the firm rather than just the responsible individuals. 

Arthur Andersen was in the trust business. And once this trust was 
lost, it was almost impossible for the firm to recover. Government 
agencies, universities, law firms, and charities need to remember that 
they are also in the trust business. It can take years to earn a solid 
reputation and a strong degree of trust, but a reputation can be lost 
almost overnight if people stray from the qualities that made them and 
their organization great. 

Unfortunately, concerns about truth and transparency aren't limited to 
the private sector. Washington got an unpleasant wake-up call when two 
government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, announced 
significant earnings restatements for recent years. We at GAO are doing 
all we can to prevent similar accountability failures in the federal 

As many people have learned the hard way, it's not always enough just 
to do what is "legal." Don't misunderstand me. Since the founding of 
our republic 217 years ago, we've been a nation based on the rule of 
law. It is one of our great strengths as a country, and something we 
advocate to other nations. Over the years, those laws have helped to 
ensure that our government has remained accountable to the American 
people and true to the vision of our Founding Fathers. 

But I think all of us have a right to expect more from people in 
positions of power, particularly high-ranking public officials. I 
firmly believe that leaders in all sectors of society should not just 
do what's legal, they should also strive to do what's right. These 
individuals should try to meet a higher set of moral and ethical 
standards. This isn't rocket science. In any situation, simply ask 
yourself how you'd like to be treated by others. 

Life is full of difficult decisions, and the right choice isn't always 
easy or popular. But in my experience, principled choices based on 
solid facts and sound analyses are the surest way to a good reputation. 
And in the end, all any of us is left with is our reputation. 

Government Accountability: 

Discussions about accountability in government all too often focus on 
infuriating cases of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. We've all 
read news accounts of federal workers who abuse their government credit 
cards or contractors who overbill the government. It's also become 
obvious that the government has been issuing far too many contracts and 
assistance payments for Hurricane Katrina relief that just don't pass 
the "straight-face" test. 

I want to be clear here. We should have zero tolerance for waste, 
fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in federal programs. But candidly, we 
could cut out every dollar of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in 
government and we'd still face serious fiscal and other accountability 

For example: 

* Where's the accountability for spending increases and tax cuts that 
are unaffordable and unsustainable over time? 

* Where's the accountability for government programs and tax 
preferences that aren't getting real results? 

* Where's the accountability for federal programs and policies that are 
rooted in the past and no longer meet the needs of the American people? 

* Where's the accountability for congressional pet projects, better 
known as earmarks, at a time of huge budget deficits? 

Is it any wonder that the government's accountability challenges have 
gone from millions to billions to trillions of dollars? 

At the same time, it's all too easy to lose sight of the biggest 
accountability problem in government today. And that's the continuing 
unwillingness of policymakers to face the facts, to take a long-term 
perspective, and to prepare our country for the large, known, and 
growing challenges that lie ahead. 

Today, our world is vastly different from what it was 50 years ago or 
even 20 years ago. We face serious long-term challenges in several 
areas, some of them unprecedented in their size, scope, complexity, and 
potential impact. Unfortunately, several of these issues are getting 
too little attention, provoking too little concern, and prompting too 
little action. 

At the top of that list is demographics. In the very near future, our 
aging population will begin to put enormous strains on our nation's 
pension and health care systems. Other emerging trends that warrant 
close scrutiny are globalization, new security threats, rapidly 
evolving technology, and a range of quality-of-life concerns affecting 
everything from education and health care to energy and the 

More urgently, America now faces four serious interrelated deficits--a 
budget deficit, a balance-of-payments deficit, a savings deficit, and a 
leadership deficit. In particular, our growing fiscal imbalance 
threatens our future economic growth, our future standard of living, 
and even our future national security. In recent years, America has 
been heading in the wrong direction on all four deficits. We have a 
window of opportunity to turn things around, but we need to act and act 
soon because the miracle of compounding is working against us. I've 
been talking a lot about these deficits lately, and I'd be happy to 
answer your questions on this or other topics after I've finished my 

More than ever, both policymakers and the public need to face the facts 
and recognize that real reform and some degree of shared sacrifice are 
essential. After all, at the end of our days on this earth, we should 
be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say we 
did everything we could to pass on an America that's better off and 
better positioned for the future. Unfortunately, based on where we're 
headed today, the baby boom generation isn't anywhere close to being 
able to do that. 

Government Transformation: 

If our nation is to meet the challenges I've just mentioned, government 
transformation is essential. Way too much of government is on autopilot 
and based on social, economic, national security, and other conditions 
that existed when Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy were in the White 

Nothing less than a top-to-bottom review of all major federal programs 
and policies is needed to determine if they are meeting their 
objectives. This will also help free up resources for other needs. 
Congress and the President need to decide which programs and policies 
remain priorities, which should be overhauled, and which have simply 
outlived their usefulness. 

To help in this effort, GAO has published an unprecedented report that 
asks a series of probing questions about current mandatory and 
discretionary spending and tax policies. Our report is called "21st 
Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government," 
and it's free on our Web site at 

Transforming government will take some time, and I'm pleased to say 
that it's already happening in some agencies and departments, including 
GAO, the IRS, and the Defense Department's Special Forces. In the end, 
it'll take patience, persistence, perseverance, and even pain before we 
finally prevail in transforming government. But prevail we must. The 
stakes are simply too high for us not to. 

Hurricane Katrina: 

I'd like to talk briefly about an issue that was the subject of this 
afternoon's symposium, an issue that underscores the urgent need for 
government transformation. In fact, one of GAO's congressional clients, 
Congressman Goode, participated in the symposium. What I'm talking 
about is the response by all levels of government--federal, state, and 
local--to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. GAO has a large and growing body 
of work on the government's relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. 
In fact, we now have nearly 40 different jobs under way in this area. 

Katrina and Rita put the capabilities of many government entities to 
the test. A few of them came through with flying colors, but many of 
them, notably Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), fell far 
short of getting even a passing grade. This is particularly disturbing 
given that many of the current response problems GAO has identified are 
very similar to ones that we identified back in 1992 following 
Hurricane Andrew. These include problems in vital areas like emergency 
communications and supplies and equipment. 

GAO's results are preliminary, but some of the key lessons learned from 
this disaster are already clear. First, it's critically important that 
leadership roles for natural disasters are clearly defined and 
effectively communicated as early as possible. Second, our National 
Response Plan needs to be clearer and more consistent and use more 
commonsense approaches to natural disasters. Third, strong planning, 
training, and exercise programs are vital to ensuring that government 
is ready to act when it's needed most. Fourth, a risk management 
decision-making approach is necessary to build the nation's 
capabilities and expertise to respond to natural disasters within 
current and expected resource levels. Fifth, given FEMA's performance, 
questions have been raised about whether the agency should be disbanded 
and its functions moved elsewhere or whether it should be made an 
independent agency again. In my view, FEMA's future may depend more on 
the quality of its future leadership and the adequacy of its resources 
than its organizational placement. After all, the Coast Guard is now 
part of the Department of Homeland Security and it performed very well 
during Katrina. Finally, it's clear that the federal government will be 
working with state and local governments for some time to rebuild the 
Gulf Coast. What's needed now is consensus on what rebuilding should 
take place, including where and based on what standard; who's going to 
pay for it; and what oversight is needed to ensure that taxpayer 
dollars are spent appropriately. 

Natural disasters tend to be high-profile tests of government's ability 
to act. But there are countless other areas in which our citizens 
depend on government for assistance. 

While companies can and do help in many situations, it's important to 
remember the private sector's ultimate loyalty is to shareholders. Only 
the government is dedicated to serving the greater good. It's vital 
that government is up to the job of meeting those needs. I am firmly 
convinced that government transformation will go a long way to ensuring 
that federal agencies and departments get the job done. 

GAO: An Advocate of Good Government: 

Any government that values ethics and integrity needs to have a system 
of checks and balances. On the federal level, GAO plays an important 
oversight role. By providing Congress with the best available 
information on government programs and policies, GAO's actions help to 
ensure that these programs and the officials running them comply with 
the law and that every government official must answer to the American 
people. We at GAO have never wavered in our belief that the public 
deserves to be fully informed about all aspects of major government 
policies, programs, and operations. That's why we perform a range of 
oversight, insight, and foresight work, almost all of which is 
available to the public and on our Web site. 

After all, ours is supposed to be a government of the people, by the 
people, and for the people. Sometimes, I think some folks forget the 
fact that the Constitution begins with the words, "We the People." In 
my view, these are the three most powerful words in that great 

As Comptroller General of the United States, I take seriously my 
responsibility to speak out on a range of complex and sometimes 
controversial issues. It's not always an easy job, and sometimes people 
don't like what we have to say. But as Harry Truman once said about his 
"Give 'Em Hell Harry" nickname, "I never give anybody hell. I just tell 
them the truth and they think it's hell." I can assure you that GAO and 
I will continue to speak truth to power and tell it like it is. 

Let me give you two recent examples of GAO's continuing commitment to 
transparency and accountability in government. First, as many of you 
probably know, back in 2002 we sued the Vice President over access to 
the records of his energy task force. This task force was created to 
develop federal policies on the exploration, production, and 
distribution of various sources of energy. This task force was no 
superficial undertaking. In fact, the panel's final report contained 
more than 1,000 recommendations for executive action or new 
legislation, including a provision that allows the Interior Department 
to waive all or part of the royalties due the taxpayers from energy 
exploration and production on federal lands. 

On behalf of Congress, GAO tried to find out who attended the task 
force meetings, what topics they discussed, and how much it cost 
American taxpayers. GAO made exhaustive efforts to reach an 
accommodation with the Administration on this information, and we ended 
up suing as a last resort. Unfortunately, the district court ruled 
against GAO on technical grounds, and for various reasons, including 
the fact that the decision was not a binding precedent and other 
parties were suing for the same information, we decided not to appeal. 
Since then, GAO has kept a close eye on access-to-records issues and 
their impact on our ability to do our work. So far, we haven't needed 
to issue another demand letter since that suit was filed. We hope we're 
never put into the position of having to go to court again. But 
candidly, if we're stonewalled in our attempts to get information that 
Congress legitimately needs to carry out its oversight and other 
constitutional duties, GAO is fully prepared to issue another demand 
letter and back it up with legal action. 

More recently, GAO issued a legal opinion on video news releases (VNR), 
which federal agencies have been issuing with increasing frequency. 
VNRs are essentially government spin paid for with taxpayer dollars but 
which look an awful lot like legitimate news stories. Agencies provide 
VNRs to TV news stations to use on their nightly news programs, and 
they're usually run without disclosing that they are government 
advocacy rather than independent journalism. 

GAO concluded that issuance of these VNRs violated the appropriations 
law banning so-called "covert propaganda." We ruled that prepackaged 
news stories produced by federal agencies must make clear that the 
government is the source of the information. This disclosure could be 
made by the so-called "reporters" who often appear in these pieces, or 
a written disclosure could be posted in a corner of the screen. The 
Administration rejected this guidance, but, based in large part on 
GAO's work, Congress permanently banned such covert propaganda as part 
of the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill. 

GAO stands by its legal opinion on prepackaged news stories. Clearly, 
deceptive video releases violate the principles of transparency and 
accountability that are essential to a healthy democracy. In my view, 
the government's credibility is enhanced by openness, and the public is 
enriched by full and open debate. These actions also help build public 
trust in government. Frankly, the American people have a right to know 
when their government is trying to influence them with their own tax 

Public Service: A Chance to Change the Future: 

The final topic I'd like to address tonight is the importance of public 
service. The simple but powerful truth is that effective and responsive 
government requires a first-rate workforce. To tackle current and 
emerging issues, government needs top talent at all levels, men and 
women who are able to think strategically and creatively while acting 
decisively, ethically, and with compassion. 

I know many of you here tonight are trying to decide how to use the 
excellent legal education you're getting at one of the nation's top 10 
law schools. As you weigh your career options, I hope you'll continue 
to keep an open mind about public service as a way to contribute to 
your community, your nation, and your world. As someone who's divided 
his career between government and the private sector, I can tell you 
that my experience at GAO and other federal agencies has been 
challenging, enlightening, and rewarding. It's given me a unique 
opportunity to help real people, people like the students on this 
campus, or retirees like your grandparents, or veterans who have fought 
to defend this country. 

Opting for public service is an honorable choice. It attracts people 
who are more dedicated to the word "we" rather than "me," people who 
are more interested in building their self-worth rather than their net 
worth. Public service also attracts people who take seriously their 
stewardship responsibilities to current and future generations. If this 
describes you, I hope you'll consider giving at least a few years of 
your life to working for the greater good, whether it's at a government 
agency, a nonprofit organization, or elsewhere. If you do, I'm 
confident it'll be a decision you'll never regret and never forget. 

In closing, as we seek to address the many challenges and capitalize on 
the opportunities of the 21st century, we need more leaders in 
government and other sectors of society who embody four key attributes: 
courage, integrity, creativity, and stewardship. We need leaders who 
have the courage to state the facts, to speak the truth, and to do the 
right thing, even if it's controversial. We need leaders who have the 
integrity to lead by example and practice what they preach. We need 
leaders who are able to innovate, develop new solutions to old 
problems, and help show others the way forward. Finally, we need 
leaders who understand that they have an obligation to others and are 
dedicated not only to maximizing results today but building a better 

Finally, I'd like to quote from a UVA law school alumnus, someone who 
was a great believer in the potential of government to improve the 
lives of its citizens. In his 1968 campaign for president, Robert 
Kennedy said, "Some men look at things the way they are and say why. I 
dream of things that never were and ask why not." These timeless words 
resonate particularly well today. Please join me in stating the facts, 
speaking the truth, and trying to make a positive and lasting 
difference for our country, our children, and our grandchildren. 
Working together and with others, we can help keep American great not 
just for today but for tomorrow. 

On the Web: 

Web site: [Hyperlink,]: 


Paul Anderson, Managing Director, Public Affairs,, 
(202) 512-4800, U.S. Government Accountability Office, 441 G Street NW, 
Room 7149, Washington, D.C. 20548: 


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