Who watches the watchdog? Lawmakers seek greater transparency from IG council

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Members of Congress view inspectors general as an objective source of information aimed at combating fraud, waste and abuse in government, as well as reliable investigators of whistleblower retaliation and sexual harassment at the agencies they oversee.

But members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee have raised concerns about the capability of the federal IG community, also known as the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), to conduct internal oversight of other watchdog offices.

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Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman of the subcommittee on government operations, said IGs rank among the “most important and misunderstood jobs in our federal government,” but require more accountability to Congress.

To that point, Connolly, Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) have introduced a bill that would make CIGIE’s Integrity Committee more transparent when it investigates misconduct within its own ranks.

The bill would require CIGIE to brief Congress on the number of its pending investigations, and to justify when it decides not to pursue a case of alleged misconduct further.

“When a member of Congress is seeking additional information from the body that oversees inspectors general, we should not be told to file a Freedom of Information Act request,” Connolly said at a hearing Wednesday.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s IG and CIGIE’s chairman, said the council has implemented a “system of effective oversight of alleged misconduct within the IG community” since taking over that responsibility from the FBI in 2017.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Meadow (R-N.C.) said inspectors general serve as the “frontline defense on making sure that waste, fraud and abuse are not pervasive within our federal government.”

The subcommittee’s leadership also pitched ideas of how to strengthen the independence and oversight role of agency IG offices.

With nearly a dozen agency IG offices running with acting leadership, Meadows proposed rethinking the presidential appointment and Senate confirmation track for most agency watchdogs. Instead, he suggested relying on CIGIE to vet and submit names for approval.

“IGs are not a priority, or don’t seem to be a priority, I should say, when considering vacancies in the government,” Horowitz said.

Connolly, meanwhile, proposed measures to prevent IGs sharing IT systems with the agencies they oversee.

“While we trust agencies would not inappropriately access investigative materials created by their IG, I am concerned about even an appearance of potential impropriety and risk to IG independence,” he said.

Kathy Buller, the Peace Corps’ IG and chair of CIGIE’s legislative committee, made her own suggestions to the subcommittee on legislative fixes.

On the top of the list, Buller reiterated the IG community’s push for testimonial subpoena authority, which would allow investigations into wrongdoing to continue, even if the targets of the probe leave their government posts.

That testimonial subpoena power, she added, would allow IGs to “answer critical questions that would otherwise go unanswered and hold bad actors accountable.”

“If a federal employee under investigation for misconduct or whistleblower retaliation resigns, most IGs would lack any authority to require the now-former federal employee to cooperate with the investigation,” Buller said.

The IG community seeks to make an explicit exemption in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to prevent disclosure of sensitive reviews of agency IT vulnerabilities.

“Agencies and IGs study federal IT systems and produce detailed reports identifying exploitable weaknesses. Malicious entities could use that information to infiltrate and harm government IT systems,” Buller said.

While FOIA prevents the disclosure of classified and law-enforcement information, no standalone exemption exists for IT vulnerabilities.

“A focused, narrowly tailored exemption would protect information that hackers could use to harm federal IT systems,” she added.

Wednesday’s hearing coincides with the 10-year anniversary of CIGIE, which has become a more cohesive oversight body, greater than the sum of its parts, over the last decade.

In 2016, Congress passed the IG Empowerment Act, which reiterated IG’s right to all agency documents in the course of their audits and investigations.

Lawmakers included that right in the original IG Act more than 40 years ago, but Horowitz said IG fights with agencies for documents had remained “the most significant threat IG’s faced to our ability to provide independent oversight.”

Last year, Congress approved $1 million in the FY 2019 spending bill for CIGIE to overhaul its Oversight.gov, a one-stop-shop for agency IG reports.

With that money, Horowitz said the council has plans to create a database of open IG recommendations and provide an online resource aimed at helping IG offices achieve “greater independence” from the agencies they oversee.

Looking back on her career as a federal watchdog, Buller said she has seen the IG community “transformed from a loose grouping of IGS into an oversight community that coordinates work, shares resources and guidance, and collectively provides better oversight.”

“Each IG has its own relationship with Congress. However, on community-wide issues, we are more effective when we speak with one voice,” she added.

However, CIGIE still faces limited resources. It has 23 full-time equivalents at the helm, including details from other IG shops. And currently, CIGIE is funded through voluntary contributions from 73 agency IG offices.

“We don’t know what money and funding we’re getting until all 73 of them go through the congressional appropriations process … which, as you know, is a tedious, laborious process that isn’t necessarily resolved by Oct. 1st of each fiscal year,” Horowitz said. “That’s a challenge for us.”

IG offices have also seen the prevalence of government shutdowns impact their work. IGs and their staff often get furloughed during a shutdown, but grant and contract works continue without leadership.

“You have situations where tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is out there continuing to be used but with no OIG oversight during a shutdown period,” Horowitz said.

In fiscal year 2017, IGs identified $32.7 billion in potential savings across the federal government in more than 4,000 reports. Put another way, every dollar spent on IG oversight has returned $22.

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