Dara Corrigan, HHS' acting principal deputy inspector general, knows how to build bridges and mend fences. She's even skilled at chaining herself to a flagpole.
These disparate skills-and 12 years of fraud-fighting experience-could make Corrigan, 38, the leading candidate for HHS' inspector general, a job that has been unoccupied since Janet Rehnquist announced her resignation under pressure in February and left office June 1. Rehnquist was criticized by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and former Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for political cronyism, lack of judgment and poor job performance.
Grassley says Corrigan has been very responsive in her dealings with his office and is setting a new course with integrity and professionalism.
"It appears that Ms. Corrigan has and continues to demonstrate that she's a watchdog, not a lap dog," says Grassley, who last month urged the White House to quickly nominate an inspector general candidate for Senate confirmation. "My impression is she's working to restore accountability and effective management to the office."
Corrigan has served as an assistant U.S. attorney, director of CMS program integrity and a Justice Department prosecutor, uniquely qualifying her for the job she holds until President Bush nominates the next inspector general.
Corrigan wants the position, saying the agency's work is vital to Medicare's integrity.
"The money is staggering, and when you have so much money spent, it's just an invitation to defraud," she says. "This money is used to pay for healthcare, and when it doesn't that's galling."
Although she's not publicly campaigning for the job, Corrigan concedes it's a great fit.
"I have this bizarre opportunity to use everything I've ever worked on, every skill I've cultivated, on this job," she says. "It's like every job I ever held before this has prepared me for this position. It's hard to imagine a better job."
U.S. Federal Claims Court Judge John Wiese, for whom Corrigan clerked for a year after graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, predicted she'd make "a terrific inspector general. It's almost like she was made for this job."
Another former Corrigan boss, CMS Administrator Tom Scully, describes her as tough, smart and professional: "She's like a good utility fielder who can fill any opening. Would she make a great inspector general? I'd give her a AAA-plus on the job she's done so far," Scully says.
Although the inspector general's position has been vacant, the office hasn't been leaderless. The woman currently directing healthcare's primary fraud enforcement agency is a career government lawyer passionate about healthcare, law and justice. Those who know her say she also is clearly a person of action when it comes to her beliefs. During a college protest of a fraternity's raising a Confederate flag, she chained herself to a flagpole to make a statement.
Taking the lead
Since June, Washington wags have whispered the names of at least a dozen prospective successors, mostly current or former inspectors general who presumably would bring the depth of experience and unassailable integrity some of Rehnquist's critics thought she lacked. In late May, Corrigan was appointed to temporarily run the department until a permanent successor was named. But in the past six months, Corrigan has been viewed as the front-runner.
And she has some clout-heavy supporters.
Scully says Corrigan may lack the political credentials that some in the Bush administration would like high-profile appointees to possess, a factor he notes could dim her nomination chances. But he points out that she has something her predecessor lacked: Grassley's support.
"Janet Rehnquist is a good friend of mine and I'm sorry that didn't end as well as I'd hoped," Scully says. "Clearly the administration needs to find someone who can work with Sen. Grassley, and he seems to like her."
Corrigan says one of the first things she did after she was appointed was invite Grassley's staff to her office to mend fences.
"I thought we should start fresh and explained my approach," says Corrigan, who established an office liaison with the Senate Finance Committee.
Those bridge-building skills have served Corrigan well in her career, and former bosses and colleagues say that typifies her management style.
She inherited an agency with sagging morale. Under Rehnquist more than 15 career agency managers who collectively had accrued several hundred years of institutional experience either resigned, were reassigned or forced to quit. Scandals about Rehnquist allowing politics to influence agency decisions and damaging job performance reports from the General Accounting Office and the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency plagued the office image.
"People were shocked and uneasy to see me," Corrigan says. "They didn't know who I was or how I got here. I had to overcome that initial dismay and surprise and let them know what I was going to do. It's not in my nature to make unnecessary speeches. But I felt I really needed to talk to people when I arrived. And I did."
She also recognizes that her role is somewhat limited by the word "acting" in her title. "I don't have a mandate. But while I'm here I will try to run this place in the best way I know," she says.
Acting and activism
Corrigan, the daughter of a New York engineer father and a stay-at-home mother, was raised on Long Island and attended the Stony Brook School, a private academy. In high school she excelled in academics and drama. In her senior year she had a chance to travel for a month with a musical review of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" along the entire Eastern seaboard. Corrigan, who graduated third in a class of 80, remembers being intense, disciplined and idealistic.
She studied history at Baylor University, graduating with honors in 1986. It was during her college years that she grew active in freedom of speech and civil rights issues.
"That was an interesting time," she says. "I learned some valuable lessons from that period: that you have to be true to yourself and that people should be able to make decisions for themselves. Respecting people and their history is important. But there were many on campus truly offended by the raising of the Confederate flag and that hit home with me that even very strongly held beliefs need to be tempered by respect for other people's rights."
After graduation from law school she clerked for Wiese, a judge she says nurtured her love of the law and inspired her decision to pursue government service. "He is the person who really shaped the entirety of my career," she says. "In many ways, he taught me more than I ever learned from law school."
Wiese recalls that Corrigan arrived as his clerk with a weak understanding of the analytical structure of contract law.
"She said she didn't know how to approach it," he remembers. "But she gave herself a year's worth of classical contract law education within several months."
Corrigan says Wiese's evangelizing about government service motivated her to join the Justice Department in 1991 as a trial lawyer in the civil fraud section. There she argued motions and settled cases but rarely went to trial. While she enjoyed working with lawyers and agents from HHS' inspector general's office and other federal agencies, she left after three years to join the U.S. attorney's office in Washington to pursue the courtroom trial experience she craved.
"I felt I was lacking those skills and knew as an assistant U.S. attorney I could do both healthcare and get trial experience."
She worked on healthcare cases and continued her friendship with Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Schnedar, whom she met at the Justice Department.
Schnedar, now the deputy chief of the sex offenses and domestic violence section for the U.S. attorney in Washington, describes her best friend as a warm and loving person who cares deeply about many issues. She remembers Corrigan as a "dogged prosecutor who could make a case when others would give up."
In 1999, Corrigan left the U.S. attorney's office to become deputy counsel for HCFA, the CMS' predecessor agency, where she steeped herself in healthcare issues.
"I provided legal advice to policymakers, who would decide which way to go. And sometimes their decisions went in ways I didn't think were good," she recalls. "That was a tremendous lesson to me. I learned that I wanted to make policy, not just advise."
Corrigan says providers interacting with her office can expect a frank and open conversation.
"We are very interested in voluntary compliance. I'm very happy to listen and talk about things," Corrigan says. "But it has to be an honest dialogue. We're interested in doing things better. We don't just want to put out reports and audits that criticize; we want them to be useful."
While Corrigan doesn't know if she'll get the job or not, she says her goal is "to leave this place better than when I found it, whether that's for six months or 10 years."
Title: HHS' acting principal deputy inspector general
Birthplace: Queens, N.Y.
Family: Husband, Naftali Bendavid; son, Geffen, 18 months
Education: Bachelor's degree in history, Baylor University, 1986; J.D., University of Virginia Law School, 1990
Previous jobs: Trial lawyer, U.S. Justice Department, civil fraud section, 1991-1995; assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, 1995-1999; deputy chief counsel, HCFA, 1999-2003; CMS director of program integrity, 2003
Quote: "We want to get the biggest bang for our buck that we can because our bucks are fixed. We're assessing which audits, evaluations and civil monetary penalty cases that we undertake are valuable and productive. Our office should meet the same standards for efficiency that we hold others to."