Watchdogs assigned to root out fraud and corruption inside federal government agencies encounter so many barriers during their investigations that they’re calling on Congress to pass legislation that will guarantee the access they’re already supposed to have.
The cry comes on the heels of a new Justice Department restriction on information that its inspector general (IG) can access during agency probes. Remember that President Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in history yet the Department of Justice (DOJ), an extension of the executive office, is limiting what its watchdog can see during what’s supposed to be an independent investigation. This goes contrary to a 1978 law requiring that inspectors general act autonomously when they conduct probes of the federal agencies they’re assigned to keep in check.
This is hardly the case. In fact, Judicial Watch has reported for years about the obstacles that inspectors general have faced as they do their job to crack down on waste, fraud and corruption in government. There are 73 IGs and, although they report to Congress, each is appointed by the president. For years current and former employees at IG offices have alleged that the watchdogs work too closely with the leaders of the agencies they investigate and that many have succumbed to political pressure, in both Republican and Democrat administrations.
In fact, a few years ago a number of IGs came under fire and faced retaliation and scrutiny after exposing wrongdoing at the agencies they were charged with investigating. This led Congress to contemplate legislation to protect the watchdogs by, among other things, requiring the president to notify Congress 30 days before firing an inspector general to guard against terminations for political reasons. As is often the case in Washington, no action was taken to solve the matter so the problem persists.
Now IGs are calling on begging Congress to do its job and help. In a letter to lawmakers this month, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which represents the nation’s IGs, asks that legislation be passed to guarantee their independence when conducting probes at federal agencies. “Without timely and unfettered access to all necessary information, Inspectors General cannot ensure that all government programs and operations are subject to exacting and independent scrutiny,” the letter states. “Refusing, restricting, or delaying an Inspector General’s independent access may lead to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings and recommendations, which in turn may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and pursuing recoveries that benefit taxpayers, and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency’s activities. It also may impede or otherwise inhibit investigations and prosecutions related to agency programs and operations.”
The move comes after the DOJ’s legal counsel issued a ruling creating new limits on information that its watchdog can access during investigations of the agency, which has been embroiled in a number of scandals during the Obama administration. Under the new guidelines the DOJ’s IG can only obtain what may be considered “sensitive” information if DOJ officials in charge of the cases being probed give permission. In some instances permission could be granted but in others the information could be completely kept from the IG under the new rules, which were initially proposed by Obama’s first Attorney General, Eric Holder.
The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency refers to the DOJ’s new policy in its letter to Congress, writing that it “sharply curtails the authority of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice (DOJ-IG) to independently access all records necessary to carry out its oversight responsibilities.” Furthermore, the IGs point out, it “represents a serious threat to the independent authority of not only the DOJ-IG but to all Inspectors General.” These watchdogs must have access, without delay, to all information and data in an agency’s possession that is deemed necessary to conduct oversight functions, the letter states.