Oversight

Lawmakers worried over threats to IG independence

U.S. Capitol (Photo by M DOGAN / Shutterstock) 

Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump fired the official in charge of overseeing a $2.2 trillion relief package, lawmakers have grown concerned that agency inspectors general are under threat of reprisal and stripped of their independence.

Republican Senators James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sent President Trump a letter on April 14, urging him to protect Inspector General officials by ensuring that they remained independent and free to do their jobs.

"Congress has made clear that IGs are not under the supervision of the head of their agency," they wrote. "This ensures that IGs avoid any conflicts of interest during an audit or investigation. IGs must be absolutely nonpartisan and objective in their findings, which translates to effective recommendations for changes to better serve the administration and taxpayers. We would hope the White House would view IGs as your partners in objectively identifying and rooting out waste within the federal government."

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) sent Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar a letter the same day, pleading with him to ensure the agency's OIG's independence, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump had twice lashed out at HHS IG Christi Grimm over a report she had published about hospitals' severe test shortages during the coronavirus pandemic. "Another Fake Dossier!" the president tweeted on April 7.

"Now more than ever, IGs must be permitted to conduct independent oversight -- especially HHS OIG, which oversees the federal agency principally responsible for protecting our nation's public health during the coronavirus pandemic," Pallone and DeGette wrote. "HHS OIG's ongoing work, including its oversight of the Administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic, must continue unimpeded by political interference or threats of reprisal."

Fears that the White House may be meddling in Inspectors General business has spread beyond the immediate pandemic. On April 15, Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed (D-R.I.), made a statement that suggested the President had replaced acting Defense Department IG Glenn Fine for asking tough questions during the course of an investigation in whether the White House had intervened in the DoD's controversial decision to grant a multibillion dollar computing infrastructure contract to Microsoft. Fine resumed his duties as DOD's principal deputy IG.

"The White House's assertion of some kind of 'communications' privilege is part of a pattern of refusing to answer questions and ethical lapses by a president who wants no independent oversight and is firing inspectors general left and right," Sen. Reed said. "Mr. Fine's removal now appears connected to his willingness to do his job and ask hard questions."

About the Author

Lia Russell is a former staff writer and associate editor at FCW.

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