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Timing Of Florida Probe Is Questioned

At the request of Gov. Jeb Bush's office, the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department ordered delays in a federal audit of Florida's pension fund that ensured the review wouldn't be completed before Bush won re-election, officials say.

The delays by Janet Rehnquist, daughter of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, are now being investigated by Congress.

A former Rehnquist deputy, who recently retired, told The Associated Press he couldn't recall another case during his quarter-century career with the watchdog agency in which an inspector general intervened personally to postpone an audit.

"I began to smell politics," said Tom Roslewicz, the now retired deputy inspector general for audits in the agency that primarily investigates fraud, waste and abuse in Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs.

A spokeswoman for Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said the Florida governor's office requested the delay because the pension agency was in the middle of a transition between its old and new directors.

"It had nothing to do with the election," spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said. Bush easily won re-election to a second term on Nov. 5, capturing 56 percent of the vote.

Ben St. John, a spokesman for Rehnquist's office, said the inspector general wouldn't comment on the matter. But he said he is confident investigations will conclude there was "no misconduct on the part of anyone in the office of the inspector general."

St. John said because similar audits usually take about nine months, the Florida audit would not have been finished before Election Day even if the delays hadn't been ordered.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and the FBI-led Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency are investigating aspects of Rehnquist's conduct. The PCIE monitors the conduct of inspectors general.

The audit of Florida's state employee pension fund was scheduled to have begun April 15 but did not start until five months later.

Roslewicz, who had been at the HHS inspector general's office since its inception in 1976, said he was ordered by Rehnquist to approve two delays to the audit before he retired in the summer. He and other officials interviewed by AP said the audit could have been completed before Election Day if enough staff had been provided.

At issue in the audit is a decision by Florida to withdraw money from the pension fund after determining the state had contributed more than had been required. Because the U.S. government contributes money to the pension fund for employees who work on federal-state programs such as Medicaid, Health and Human Services auditors are supposed to determine if the government had received a proper refund after the withdrawal.

Florida's pension fund has drawn other headlines during Bush's tenure. The State Board of Administration, which runs the fund, has been under scrutiny because it invested and lost $300 million in the bankrupt energy marketing company, Enron.

A quarter-century ago, Congress created inspectors general to guard against waste, fraud and abuse at federal agencies and mandated that the watchdogs operate independent of political pressures.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the next chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked his staff also to look into the matter.

"Inspectors general offer important checks and balances on federal agencies," Grassley said. "They have to be isolated from politics to function effectively. Any efforts to compromise their independence are wrong."

Senior HHS staff members said postponement decisions are left to auditors, and granted only for reasons like illnesses, computer breakdowns and a reluctance to interfere with other current investigations, they said.

"I can't recall being involved in any decision when we put one off or postponed one for any reason," said Patrick McFarland, inspector general for the Office of Personnel Management. McFarland is currently the government's longest serving inspector general at 12 years.

Hirst, the spokeswoman for Jeb Bush, said the governor's chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan, called to request a delay on April 15, the day the audit was supposed to have started.

A top aide to Rehnquist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Shanahan described her request as urgent and asked Health and Human Services officials to get the message to Rehnquist, who was at a department reception.

The outgoing and incoming managers of the Florida pension fund told AP the governor's office never contacted them to discuss a delay.

Tom Herndon, the pension manager who retired in June, said he saw no need for a postponement. His successor, Coleman Stipanovich, was hardly new to the pension fund; he was Herndon's top deputy.

Stipanovich said while he believed it would be wise to have him in office before the audit began, he never requested a postponement from the governor.

By Larry Margasak By Larry Margasak