IGs warn of potential threats to all inspectors general

Wednesday - 8/6/2014, 5:35am EDT

Inspectors general from 47 agencies are backing three fellow auditors from the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Peace Corps over what they say are limits on access to information put on them by agency senior officials.

In a letter to the leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the IGs say auditors from those three agencies recently faced restrictions on their access to certain records.

"In each of these instances, we understand that lawyers in these agencies construed other statutes and law applicable to privilege in a manner that would override the express authorization contained in the IG Act," the IGs wrote. "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."

In the letter to the oversight committees, the IGs detail their concerns for each of the three agencies.

At the Justice Department, the IGs say auditors didn't get access to essential records around 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."

The letter stated DoJ officials eventually granted the IG the documents, but they are concerned this problem could happen again without assurances from the department's leadership.

At the EPA, the IG was denied access to documents by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which argued attorney-client privilege defeated the statutorily mandated Inspector General access.

Finally at the Peace Corps, the IG does not have full access to sexual assault records under an investigation of the agency's handling of reports of sexual assault against Peace Corps volunteers.

"Moreover, the issues facing the DoJ OIG, the EPA OIG, and the Peace Corps OIG are not unique. Other Inspectors General have, from time to time, faced similar obstacles to their work, whether on a claim that some other law or principle trumped the clear mandate of the IG Act or by the agency's imposition of unnecessarily burdensome administrative conditions on access," the letter stated. "Even when we are ultimately able to resolve these issues with senior agency leadership, the process is often lengthy, delays our work, and diverts time and attention from substantive oversight activities. This plainly is not what Congress intended when it passed the IG Act."

The IGs asked for members of Congress to provide a strong reaffirmation of the powers granted them under the IG Act.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) released the letter as part of his long-standing support of IG independence.

"This is an administration that pledged to be the most transparent in history. Yet, these non-partisan, independent agency watchdogs say they are getting stonewalled. How are the watchdogs supposed to be able to do their jobs without agency cooperation? Inspectors general exist to improve agencies and get the most bang for every tax dollar," Grassley said in a release. "Even before today's letter, I was working on legislation to help inspectors general deal with agency stonewalling, among other problems, and working with the committees of jurisdiction. This letter underscores the need for congressional review and possibly legislative action. Congress needs to respond when inspectors general ask for help. I'll continue working with the committees of jurisdiction to fix the access problems, through oversight and possibly legislation."

Congress has sought to empower IGs even more over the last few years. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is drafting a bill to give small agency auditors more power.

At a hearing January before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, three agency IGs &mash; Justice, Peace Corps and the Small Business Administration — told lawmakers that slashed budgets and dwindling staff sizes are hindering their ability to conduct robust oversight.

Additionally, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) wants Congress to give IGs more authority to use computer matching programs to root out waste, fraud and abuse.

IGs as a group last received a boost in 2008 when Congress passed and then- President George W. Bush signed into law the Inspectors General Reform Act.

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