Agency watchdogs seek more independence, budget boost

Wednesday - 1/15/2014, 5:21pm EST

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) says agency inspectors general are increasingly facing obstacles in their efforts to uncover waste and misconduct.

IGs have had trouble accessing information from agency leadership, are barred from looking outside the purview of their own agencies and lack subpoena powers to compel reluctant witnesses to testify, Issa said at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday that featured testimony from three agency IGs.

Those are just some of the areas Issa said he wants to look at as the committee considers a broad update to the laws governing IGs.

The proposed legislative changes come as agency IGs say slashed budgets and dwindling staff sizes are hindering their ability to conduct robust oversight.

IGs face pushback from agencies

The top watchdogs at both the Justice Department and the Peace Corps told lawmakers they've faced resistance from their agencies at times in turning over records in recent years.

For example, DoJ initially blocked the IG's office from gathering grand jury records and other relevant documents during its investigation of Operation "Fast and Furious," IG Michael Horowitz told lawmakers. After he appealed to the attorney general, the IG's office was granted access to the materials.

"However, requiring an inspector general to obtain permission in order to receive critical documents in an agency's possession impairs an IG's independence and conflicts with the core principles of the IG Act," he said.

Kathy Buller, Peace Corps IG, said the agency is refusing to hand over information to her office related to sexual assault investigations.

"We've currently reached an impasse with the agency" regarding her office's role in accessing reports made by volunteers who are victims of sexual assault, Buller said.

The agency's policy to deny the IG access is based on its general counsel's interpretation of the 2011 Kate Puzey Act, named for a Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered in the African country of Benin in 2009 after reporting alleged sexual assaults.

The law was designed to protect whistleblowers by restricting the reporting of information they provide, but it also mandated that the IG's office oversee sexual-assault mismanagement allegations, Buller said.

However, under restricted reporting requirements put in place by the law, the agency doesn't share all the details of reported sexual assaults with the IG's office, creating a "blackout of information," Buller said.

Do IGs need broader subpoena powers?

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), meanwhile, is pressing Congress to write legislation making it easier for IGs to identify the recipients of fraudulent federal payments using computer matching. Currently, investigators must go through a protracted review process before being able to verify payments, according to testimony by Peggy Gustafson, the Small Business Administration's IG and the chair of CIGIE's legislative committee.

CIGIE also wants IGs to be exempted from requirements under the Paperwork Reduction Act that require investigators to get approval from both the senior agency officials as well as the Office of Management and Budget before conducting surveys.

However, CIGIE stopped short of endorsing broad subpoena powers for agency IGs, such as granting them more authority to compel agency witnesses — including those who have retired or resigned from the agency — to testify during investigations.

"There is, I think, a general acknowledgement that there ... are times when we cannot make people talk to us," Gustafson said. "If you're a former federal employee, there's nothing we can to 'make' you talk to us," Gustafson said.

But she said there's not yet broad agreement among IGs that testimonial subpoena power is necessarily the right tool for addressing those concerns.

"There's not enough of a consensus that we, as an organization, are right now advocating for it because there is a difference among some of us on what the tool should be," she said.

Horowitz said in just his 20 months on the job there have been "many instances," where employees resign or retire shortly before they're due to be interviewed by the IG's office.

"Now, I appreciate completely the concern about unfettered subpoena power," Horowitz said. "I don't believe for a minute that should be the case. There should be appropriate restrictions. ... But there are many instances we could cite where our ability to do full complete reviews that you would want us to do have been stymied."

IGs push for budget boost

Lawmakers also expressed concern about the impact of across-the-board budget cuts on the operations agency IG operations.