Senate committee backs IG community’s pursuit for better records access

The Senate gave the federal watchdogs a shot in the arm this week with the release of a new report that confirmed some long-held concerns within the inspectors general community.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found that more than 15,000 IG recommendations governmentwide have not been implemented, with some dating back more than 15 years ago.  The report also acknowledged that eight IGs reported recent difficulty in obtaining documents from their agencies during the course of their investigations.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the committee, signaled his support for legislation to give the IG community easier access to agency records, an obstacle that federal oversight officials have recently advocated for.

“Our investigation highlights the numerous obstacles that many inspectors general have faced in trying to root out waste, fraud and abuse. I will continue to hold federal agencies accountable to implement common-sense recommendations to save taxpayer dollars, and will fight to pass our legislation that is critical to strengthening inspectors general,” Johnson said in a statement.

The House in June passed a bill, sponsored by House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), that would broaden IGs’ ability to request documents from the agencies they oversee.

The HSGAC report also recommended removing some of the obstacles IGs face when seeking agency documents.

“The IG community needs support from Congress — urging departments and agencies to adopt OIG recommendations, highlighting instances where OIGs face obstruction, and ensuring OIGs have prompt and unfettered access to all information necessary to complete their important role in our system of government,” the report said.

Brian Miller, a former inspector with the General Services Administration, told Federal News Radio that agencies that deny document requests often misunderstand the wide latitude that officials in the Office of the Inspector General have to request information.

“There is a problem when IGs don’t get information, and sometimes information is withheld for rather flimsy reasons. Many times it’s because agency officials don’t understand the authority of the IG or the role of the IG,” Miller said.

Under the Inspectors General Act, federal watchdogs have the right to access “all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations or other material available” to the agencies they oversee.

OIG officials at the Justice Department and the Peace Corps both reported restrictions on whole categories of information, while the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department OIGs reported being denied access to specific documents.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general and the chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, called on agencies to address their IG recommendation backlog.

“I think all IGs would agree our mission, at its core, is to help improve the operations of the agencies that we oversee. We do that through our recommendations, and the expectation is that agencies implement those recommendations,” Horowitz said.  “We save the taxpayers billions of dollars as IGs. We do that by conducting oversight. To do that, we need to see all the records.”

Housing and Urban Development OIG reported the highest number of open and unimplemented recommendations with a total of 2,106. The HSGAC report found that implementing all of the IG recommendations in the backlog would achieve a governmentwide cost savings of more than $87 billion.

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