You might have read the NPR/ProPublica story from Monday about the Government Accountability Office’s investigation of the Red Cross, and CEO Gail McGovern’s attempts to end that investigation.  The article says that in 2014 the GAO “started an inquiry into the Red Cross’ federally mandated role responding to disasters and whether the group gets enough oversight.”  The story’s title, “Red Cross CEO Tried to Kill Government Investigation,” appears to be accurate but somewhat misses the point.

The issue isn’t so much that McGovern tried to kill the investigation.  It’s probably not a bold statement to say all CEOs in the history of the world have tried to end every government investigation into their organizations.  They’re sort of obligated to try.  The issue is how McGovern tried to end the investigation.  Instead of more conventional methods, McGovern apparently decided to TAKE IT STRAIGHT TO THE TOP and in June 2014 wrote a letter to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., whose request had initiated the GAO inquiry.  She wrote, “I would like to respectfully request that you consider us meeting face-to-face rather than requesting information via letter and end the GAO inquiry that is currently underway.”  In lieu of a personal meeting (or the investigation itself), the congressman could call her cell phone directly with questions. Wouldn’t that be enough?  Now her ham-handed attempt to quash the investigation has been published and she’s being hammered for her apparent lack of commitment to “transparency.”

This is a mistake I’ve seen before among people who have accomplished a lot but haven’t dealt frequently with government regulators or law enforcement.  The inclination is to tap a connection to a Cabinet-level secretary or member of Congress when almost any other option would be more effective.  If you find yourself in such a situation, you might try these mundane alternatives:

  • Figure out what happened.  Get a command of the actual facts as soon as possible.
  • If you can (and you can), use those facts to create a narrative that makes sense for the organization.
  • Find competent counsel with a reputation for rigor and intellectual integrity and experience in government investigations.  If that counsel knows staff at the investigating agency, that sort of connection could be immensely valuable.  Not because it will be a shortcut to killing the investigation, but because it could bring a level of trust that inures to the organization’s benefit.
  • Respond quickly and diligently to investigators’ questions.
  • Be ready to fight if appropriate.

It doesn’t always work.  Even excellent lawyering isn’t always enough to “kill” some investigations.  But if you’re in the government’s crosshairs, it’s the best plan you have.  And it’s a lot better than McGovern’s Operation Big Shot.