IG community looks to put ‘teeth behind the bark’ with subpoena power

House oversight members said they want help give agency inspectors general all the tools they need to do thorough work.

Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on iTunes or PodcastOne.

House oversight members on Wednesday pledged their help in securing testimonial subpoena power for the inspector general community.

Rep. Steve Russell (R- Okla.) said he was honored to take the lead on giving IGs “the proper tools” to do their job.

“I think this is something that we ought to explore, we ought to try to do,” Russell said, during the hearing to examine IG recommendations and reforms. “Without teeth behind the bark, it’s not really going to matter much.”

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz promised to use the subpoena power responsibly.

“We’re prepared to sit down and address any concerns about the use of it, make sure there’s effective oversight,” said Horowitz, who’s also chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. “We had talked about a 3-IG panel to make sure that existed, and that’s what was originally in the draft legislation that we worked with the committee on. We’re prepared to work and make sure this is used reasonably and appropriately. Frankly just having the authority I think will cause us to not need to use it.”

Testimonial subpoena power is one of five legislative priorities still outstanding after last year’s passage of the Inspector General Empowerment Act.

The act specifically amends a section of the IG Act of 1978, giving inspectors general better tools to access key evidence for their investigations.

The other legislative priorities include:

  • protecting cybersecurity vulnerability information from public disclosure.
  • amending the Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act (PFCRA).
  • establishing a congressional notification requirement for the use of paid or unpaid, non-duty status in cases involving an IG.
  • amending the Privacy Act to facilitate oversight.

“While there is still some work to be done, I am pleased to report that the IG Empowerment Act has produced an appreciable, positive change both in increased access and ongoing progress towards a culture of openness and cooperation,” said Kathy Buller, inspector general for the Peace Corps, and executive chairwoman for CIGIE’s legislation committee.

Horowitz said he’d also heard from staff that their jobs had gotten easier since the empowerment act’s passage. While there were occasional timeliness roadblocks, when it comes to legal impediments “it’s night and day,” he said.

Full-court press

The empowerment act’s impact was one of a handful of topics House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform members focused on during the hearing.

Along with the subpoena power, members were also interested in the status of ongoing investigations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hurricane response efforts.

“On a scale of 1-10 … what would you give the response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico?” asked Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Homeland Security Department IG John Roth said both his office and the Government Accountability Office were assessing the situation.

“We haven’t come to any conclusions that I’m prepared to talk about at this point, but we have people right now on the ground, asking that very question,” Roth said.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) asked what Roth’s office was doing to oversee fraud attempts amid the agency’s overall disaster relief.

Roth said a “full-court press” effort was put into place early on, “to make sure we have a public presence, to make sure people know we’re there.”

Roth said his office is doing the spot auditing work, looking at contracts, checking names and criminal backgrounds, and making sure people who are prohibited from working with the government are not getting contracts.

“Those are the kinds of things we do early on, and then obviously once the public assistance money comes in, we’ll be doing early warning audits to take a look at whether or not the entity that’s involved has the capacity to use this money in an effective way,” Roth said. “We have a whole series of things that we’ll do over the course of time.”

Comer said he understood the complexity and difficulty of FEMA’s mission, but past audit reports paint a picture that “this is still not a mature agency.”

“My confidence level in FEMA isn’t where it needs to be,” Comer said. “That’s unfortunate because I know we have a lot of people in need. I believe this agency can and should be the point of contact between the government and the people. I’m hopeful FEMA will try to improve and restore confidence in at least members like myself who have read some of these audits and have serious concerns about the direction that agency’s headed.”

Risks and human resources

Another focus of the hearing was where the IG community stood on hiring and vacancies.

Horowitz said there are currently 14 vacant IG positions, 12 of which are presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed roles. President Donald Trump has nominated candidates for half of the positions.

“We’ve had a very good working relationship with the White House in reviewing candidates,” Horowitz said. “They’ve made sure we’ve reviewed and interviewed and passed along our views on every candidate. So far all seven candidates they’ve nominated have come through our office. So far it’s been an open and productive dialogue.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) asked whether the vacancies could affect the ability of IG offices to make long-term commitments to projects.

Horowitz said yes, because acting inspectors general, though they do good work, also understand they have to be careful around long-term issues.

“The access issues I faced as you know, occurred during that period where there was no confirmed IG,” Horowitz said. “There’s a significant difference having been confirmed for a position and going through and knowing you’re staying, versus filling a seat with the unknown of how long is that going to be, and who’s going to come next.”

As for the hiring freeze at the beginning of 2017, the IGs said they were largely exempted from its impact, but they are feeling the fiscal 2018 crunch.

“The president’s budget for me for fiscal 2018 has a 10 percent cut in our budget,” Roth said. “That would be 10 percent below this year’s level at the same time the rest of DHS is increasing. So as the risks increase, our opportunity to take a look at those risks, and try to mitigate those risks decline.”

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    Michael Horowitz, Justice Department's inspector general, testifies at a House hearing in 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, testifies at a House hearing in 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    New inspector general website allows public to oversee watchdog work

    Read more