Agencies are creating roadblocks for auditors, hampering efforts to fix critical programs and wasting taxpayer money, three inspectors general told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In some cases, investigators have received key documents after lengthy delays. In others, the IGs testified, they are still being stonewalled.
The IGs cited specific examples at the Peace Corps, Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemical Safety Board.
When questioned by lawmakers, the inspectors general said the law that grants them authority to investigate agencies, known as the IG Act, is clear and effective. But agency lawyers contend laws meant to protect sensitive information trump the IG Act, they said.
“The act, as written, is quite strong and quite clear. It provides access to all agency information and all agency employees. There are no exceptions,” said Arthur Elkins, the inspector general of both the board and the EPA.
But, he said, “The IG Act hinges on the cooperation of an agency with its IG. If there is not prompt and complete cooperation, the work of the OIG is stifled.”
He cautioned lawmakers not to alter the law, but to press for stronger enforcement of it. He said he would support an executive order from the President directing agencies to comply with inspectors general’s requests.
“All means all.”
For more than a year, the Chemical Safety Board has refused to give auditors documents that may reveal whether Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and other senior officials used unauthorized email accounts to conduct official business, Elkins told the committee.
The board cited attorney-client privilege in withholding the information, he said. After an earlier congressional hearing and intervention by members of the committee, Elkins said he had received some requested documents, but learned of more that should be included in the investigation. He said he had not received the additional information.
The board denied the charge.
“To the best of our knowledge the CSB has turned over all documents requested by the OIG as of July 15, 2014,” a board spokesperson said.
At the EPA, Elkins said he received “substantial cooperation” about 80-90 percent of the time. But he continued to have problems with the Office of Homeland Security, saying it refused to cooperate with investigations into problems including employee misconduct and computer security.
The office is subject to OIG oversight, EPA Press Secretary Liz Purchia said, noting Administrator Gina McCarthy had told the office to comply with auditors, “to the maximum extent allowable by law.”
McCarthy has attempted to set up a dispute resolution process, according to Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), but Elkins said he had no knowledge of it and had not noticed any change.
“The IG Act says ‘all means all.’ When we ask for information and access to documents and individuals, that’s exactly what it means,” he said. “Entering into a dispute resolution process send the message that there’s some wiggle room and it can be negotiated,” he said. “I’m totally against that process.”
At Peace Corps, sexual assault victims can deny access to information
The inspector general of the Peace Corps, Kathy Buller, said she confronted similar roadblocks when investigating the agency’s response to sexual assaults against volunteers. There, she said, the agency’s general counsel refused to give auditors certain crime reports out of concerns for victims’ privacy. The agency interprets a recent law to state that victims must authorize disclosures about their cases. When victims choose to restrict their files, that information is hidden to all but essential agency staff.
The agency’s concerns over privacy were baseless, Buller argued, because her investigators are fully trained law enforcement officers and must comply with the same privacy laws that Peace Corps staff do. They have never run afoul of those laws, she said. In addition, they examine problems at large, rather than specific examples.
Buller received some redacted documents in May, after signing a memorandum of understanding with the agency, which she called “a dangerous precedent.”
But, after attempting to get a statistically significant sample of cases for a congressionally mandated review of the agency’s sexual assault programs, Buller found more widespread problems.
“The Peace Corps has no case management system,” she said. “We have records all over the place and we don’t have any way to track how a volunteer is treated after they’ve been assaulted because there’s no case management system.”
Like the Chemical Safety Board and the EPA, the Peace Corps considers itself compliant with inspector general audits.
Under the memorandum, “the agency has fulfilled all of the IG’s requests to date for further information on sexual assault cases. We are committed to working with the Inspector General to ensure rigorous oversight while still complying with the law and giving volunteers control over who has access to their personal and intimate information,” a Peace Corps spokeswoman said.
‘Frivolous’ objections at the Justice Department
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz described some of the objections his office encountered as “frivolous.”
The FBI’s lawyers review all documents for national security implications before handing them to the inspector general, he said. In one instance, the bureau refused to give him a subcomponent’s organizational chart without first checking with the agency’s general counsel, he said.
Approximately six times, he said, he had to appeal to Attorney General Eric Holder or Deputy Attorney General James Cole to intervene. At other times, he has gone to the head of the particular agency for help.
“I shouldn’t have to go to the people I oversee to get records. Congress, I don’t think, intended that,” Horowitz said. “That would undercut, in every way, our independence.”
He added that in most cases they’ve had full cooperation. “But once one person sees you can object, you get more objections, frankly,” he said.
The Justice Department has asked its Office of Legal Counsel to issue a legal opinion addressing the objections raised by the FBI.
“A clarification is critical,” Horowitz said.
The hearing follows a rare letter from 47 inspectors general alleging the difficulties faced by these three IGs were not unique, but similar to obstacles faced by other auditors “from time to time.” There are 72 federal inspectors general, according to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called on Democratic members to join him in urging President Barack Obama to resolve the problems “once and for all.”
The White House contends that auditors, by and large, have had good working relationships with their respective agencies. But in a letter to lawmakers, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said his office would make sure all agencies and their employees understood their responsibilities to provide information to auditors.
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