CLOSER LOOK | EMPLOYEE PROFILE
Kim Nelson is a senior investigator in NSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Her job is to probe and seek the truth – resolving allegations of waste, fraud, mismanagement, or other misconduct against Agency affiliates. By ensuring the integrity of Agency operations, the NSA OIG aims to make NSA better. This seasoned professional shares some of her thoughts on just why that is.
Q: How would you describe your job to a recent college graduate who’s considering a position in your NSA OIG Investigations Division?
A: I’m a naturally curious person and have always liked to ‘figure things out.’ My position as a senior NSA OIG investigator allows me to use my natural curiosity, as well as my analytic and people skills, to resolve allegations of waste, fraud, mismanagement, or other misconduct against NSA employees, military assignees, and contractor personnel.
Investigators are responsible for conducting an entire investigation from start to finish, without a great deal of supervisory oversight. Therefore, we have a great deal of autonomy and responsibility, which I enjoy. In addition, my job is never dull. On any given day, I may research and identify applicable laws and regulations; review and gather documentation related to particular allegations; conduct interviews of witnesses and subjects of investigation; collaborate with Assistant U.S. Attorneys and other investigators and external partners; and draft a variety of documents, including reports of investigation on administrative cases and affidavits in support of search warrants on criminal cases. It is constantly changing and challenging work that makes the workday go by quickly!
As a fact-finder, it is essential that I remain both objective and thorough; my integrity is everything. In order to keep my investigative skills sharp and ensure that I remain current on various laws, regulations, and policies, the OIG regularly sends me to training. Over the past year alone, I attended a three-day course in advanced interviewing techniques, as well as the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency three-day periodic refresher course for investigators. I enjoy learning new investigative techniques that can help me obtain the information necessary to arrive at sound conclusions – and I take this very seriously. The Agency and other federal authorities may use my reports to take disciplinary action against those found to have violated NSA, U.S. Defense Department, or other federal regulations or statutes, or as a basis for civil or even criminal actions against them.
Q: What makes the work meaningful for you?
A: It promotes Agency efficiency and effectiveness and helps ensure individual accountability. People often come to the OIG with concerns about the propriety of certain actions. I enjoy being able to use investigative methods to resolve issues. In the end, it is the evidence that determines whether a violation has occurred. If an allegation is unsubstantiated, ‘no harm, no foul,’ so to speak. We try to keep a low profile during the investigation and, to the greatest extent possible, avoid disruption to the workplace. If an allegation is substantiated, then I believe I’ve performed a valuable public service by bringing the misconduct to light, so that either the Agency or relevant U.S. Attorney’s Office can take appropriate action. As an employee of the OIG, I also get great satisfaction from helping people in the workforce find the right place to address their concerns – not everything leads to an OIG investigation and, if something is not appropriate for us to pursue, we try to help people find the right place to handle it.
Q: What would most people be shocked to know about your day-to-day work?
A: People are always surprised to learn that OIG investigators do not care more about the motivation behind complaints of misconduct we receive. Subjects of investigation always want to tell me who they believe made the allegation against them and why the complainant is not a credible person overall. Quite frankly, my job is to find out whether or not the allegation is true, not the motivation behind it. Motive can relate to credibility, of course, but in the end, the underlying facts about what happened are what matter. Another thing that surprises people is that the NSA OIG makes every effort to maintain the confidentiality of both our complainants and witnesses. As an investigator, I typically don’t reveal to others whom I’ve spoken with during an investigation. Obviously, we can’t keep people from guessing, but I will neither deny nor confirm. OIG honors the confidentiality of employees who report concerns, and will disclose their identities only with their consent or if such disclosure becomes unavoidable during the course of the investigation (such as when a case is prosecuted criminally). One more thing many people don’t realize is that not all OIG investigators are necessarily attorneys. I’m not! But, like attorneys, investigators require excellent analytic and communication (both verbal and written) skills to be effective.
Q: Describe one of the oddest situations you’ve ever encountered while carrying out your duties.
A: I had a surprising experience while conducting a criminal conflict-of-interest investigation involving an NSA civilian. The investigation determined that he had funneled multiple contracts totaling over three-quarters of a million dollars to his wife’s companies. During the search of his home, which the FBI helped execute on the OIG’s behalf, I was surprised that his wife seemed completely unconcerned and continued to almost robotically wash and fold laundry while approximately six agents went through the entire house, removing boxes of evidence. The couple also had two young children, yet both their home and minivan were absolutely immaculate. It was surreal! By the way, the case was prosecuted criminally, and the NSA employee pleaded guilty to a felony.
Q: You’ve served in NSA OIG’s Investigations Division for more than 15 years. What has compelled you to stay there?
A: I now have the longest tenure within the division and plan to retire from here within the next year. I stayed for multiple reasons. The work-life balance is excellent – my commute is 20 minutes door-to-door and I work a full but flexible schedule that typically allows me to adjust my workdays as necessary to fit my personal commitments. Further, as my mom would say, I was born to be an investigator. Finally, I like my colleagues and respect my leadership. We are all professionals committed to the same important mission at this very critical agency.
Q: How would you respond to those who might suggest that OIGs in the U.S. Intelligence Community are not serious watchdogs?
A: I can answer only from my own perspective, based on my experience at the NSA OIG. During my time here, the office has always stressed its independence. As I like to tell new NSA affiliates during briefings about the OIG, ‘Although we are part of NSA, we are also apart from NSA.’ I have never sensed an attempt by the NSA OIG to push Agency problems under the rug. To the contrary, in my experience, our IGs have always aggressively pursued credible allegations received by the office. Although we depend upon NSA affiliates to bring matters of fraud, waste, and abuse to our attention, we also conduct proactive audits and inspections and use other tools to ferret out issues and/or misconduct requiring OIG attention. We now have a Presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed IG, which ensures even greater independence for our office. NSA cannot prevent the IG from carrying out an audit, inspection, or investigation without Congressional notification. Further, the IG is obligated to report to Congress any impediments to his independence, to include inadequate resourcing of the OIG. In addition, we issue our reports to Congress, regardless of whether Agency legal counsel and leadership agree with our findings. We recently issued our first-ever unclassified Semi-Annual Report to Congress, furthering transparency and, through it, the independence of our work. In short, at the NSA OIG, we take our ‘watchdog’ role seriously.