Transparency? 'Grave Concern' Over Administration Impeding IG Investigations

August 12, 2014 - 10:33 AM

White House Tours

The White House as seen from the South Lawn in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(CNSNews.com) - Oversight committees in the House and Senate are asking the Obama administration to take "affirmative steps" to make sure the nation's inspectors general have access to the materials they are legally entitled to see as they conduct their independent government investigations.

“We write to express our grave concern about difficulties that certain Inspectors General have encountered in trying to obtain documents from their respective agencies,” the committee chairs wrote in an Aug. 8 letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan.

“Timely and complete access to information is essential if Inspectors General are to perform their missions, and their rights to information are clearly provided for in the Inspector General Act of 1978."

The letter asks Donovan to "take affirmative steps to ensure that all agencies and their staffs are properly informed and trained on the requirements of the Inspectors General Act so that IGs receive the information they need to do their jobs."

Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, IGs have broad power to do whatever investigations or reports they consider “necessary or desirable.” Moreover, the law  states that IGs shall "have access to all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material available" to the agency that comes under a particular IG's focus.

The congressmen's letter to Donovan follows concerns raised last week by 47 federal IGs about the difficulties some of them have faced in trying to get documents they need to do their work.

In their Aug. 5 letter to the oversight committees, the 47 IGs specifically complained about "serious limitations on access to records that have recently impeded the work of Inspectors General at the Peace Corps, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Justice."

In each of those cases, agency lawyers invoked other statutes in an attempt to override the authority provided by the 1978 IG Act.

"These restrictive readings of the IG Act represent potentially serious challenges to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner," the 47 IGs wrote.

They gave the following examples:

-- The Peace Corp general counsel, citing a 2011 law, refused to provide its OIG with full access to records related to an investigation of sexual assault by Peace Corps volunteers. Eventually, the Peace Corps OIG got some of the information it sought, but "the agency still refuses to provide its OIG with full access to sexual assault records," the IGs said.

-- The Justice Department OIG was denied "essential records" by agency components in three different reviews due to a "cramped reading" of the IG Act by agency lawyers, despite the fact that such records had been produced to the DOJ OIG by the agency in many prior reviews without objection.

-- EPA's Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board refused to provide requested documents relating to an IG investigation, arguing that attorney-client privilege "defeated statutorily mandated" IG access.

"This is not the first we have heard of these problems," members of the congressional oversight committees wrote to Donovan. "When conflict arises between an agency and an Inspector General, agencies should engage quickly and proactively with the affected Inspector General to try to resolve any possible conflicts in a manner that allows the Inspector General to do his or her work."

The letter to Donovan is signed by Sens. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In their complaint to Congress, the 47 IGs said the IG Act, in its 35 years of existence, has shown that independent oversight of federal agencies "saves taxpayers money and improves the operations of the federal government."

The IGs said impediments to their access "make us less effective, encourage other agencies to take similar actions in the future, and erode the morale of the dedicated professionals that make up our staffs."