Inspectors general complain to Congress that agencies often respond to requests for information with claims that it is protected by law.
Frustration over lack of access to agency information by federal inspectors general is bubbling over into public view. Scores of IGs packed into a Capitol Hill hearing room Feb. 3 for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee session examining what the IG community and some in Congress see as a growing trend of agencies locking down information being sought by investigators.
"If inspectors general can't do their jobs, we can't do our job," said committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
The hearing, the first under the new chairman, comes in the wake of an August 2014 letter signed by 47 of the 72 federal IGs complaining about "serious limitations on access to records that have recently impeded the work of inspectors general at the Peace Corps, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice."
The IGs of those three agencies renewed their complaints in testimony at the Feb. 3 hearing. Although the specifics of each case vary, the essential complaint from IGs is that agencies often respond to requests for information that appear to be clearly authorized under the 1978 statute that created the IG post with claims that the information is protected by some other legal framework.
The FBI, for example, has put limits on IG access to information that is protected under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and information from wiretaps and grand jury proceedings. The Peace Corps' IG encountered restrictions on the release of sexual assault complaints under a law that guarantees anonymity to victims under most circumstances.
"Allowing agencies to unilaterally decide when they can or cannot release information to the IG presents a clear conflict of interest," said Peace Corps IG Kathy Buller.
Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz, who was recently installed as chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), said his staff had not been denied access to documents but that the cumbersome process of obtaining them through official channels was consuming much of his employees' time.
Access to federal workers is also an issue. EPA IG Arthur Elkins cited the example of an employee who was able to avoid answering questions by putting in for retirement. Although feds who face allegations of criminal behavior are subject to law enforcement inquiries whether or not they still work for the government, Elkins noted that there is no remedy for IGs when employees violate their obligation to comply with an IG probe and subsequently resign.
Congress should "look into the gap between what the IG Act requires and OIGs' ability to achieve those requirements," Elkins said.
Opening up the 1978 IG Act could create more problems for IGs. Horowitz cautioned that the FBI and Justice's Office of Legal Counsel have questioned Congress' intent of in the 1978 law, which provides for access to "all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations or other material."
In the IG community, the law is viewed as "crystal clear," Horowitz said. But he added that if Congress tried and failed to update IG access, agencies might infer that there is some legislative confusion about the meaning of the law.
Horowitz must also satisfy some Democratic members that the IGs themselves are subject to oversight.
CIGIE has the authority under the 1978 act to handle complaints about IGs via an integrity committee that reports to the FBI and the Office of Management and Budget. Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) have filed complaints about an IG who allegedly violated his obligation for bipartisan investigation by meeting and sharing information with Republican oversight committee members but not Democrats.
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