Agency watchdogs told the House Oversight Committee that early worries about a purge of the IG ranks by the Trump transition have been put to rest, but they were still concerned about the possible consequences of the federal hiring freeze.
A leading House Democrat disclosed an email that before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the Trump staffer was looking to replace certain Inspectors General as part of the transition.
At a Feb 1 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) produced a redacted email, sent Jan. 13 by Katie Giblin, a transition team member, suggesting that certain IGs should expect to be replaced.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who testified before the panel, guessed that "upwards of six to 10" IGs received calls from the transition team indicating they could be removed from their posts, but said he did not personally receive one of these calls.
The IG community "absolutely took it very seriously" and saw a potential threat, he said. "I think it’s fair to say that all of us, including those who got the calls, were concerned about not just about their own positions, but about the institution itself."
Republican committee members downplayed those communications, which were privately walked back by White House Counsel Donald McGahn.
Horowitz said he "appreciated" a call he received from McGahn, who assured him the Trump team had no intention of following through on the threats. Committee Democrats, however, wanted more answers.
Agency watchdogs also told the panel that the recently passsed Inspectors General Empowerment Act has afforded them greater access to agency materials but noted that limited investigative authorities and staffing levels continue to constrict their effectiveness.
Horowitz, who doubles as a leader in the IG community through his chairmanship of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that while it is too early to fully judge the act’s impact, increased access to agency documents has resulted in "a significant change in approach."
Horowitz also said that in order to further empower IGs, "the key is getting the subpoena authority" to compel "individuals who either are former employees or employees of contractors and grant recipients” to testify in IG investigations. That authority was proposed, but dropped from the 2016 law's final version.
On the macro level, Horowitz said that promptly filling the 12 currently vacant IG posts -- nine presidential appointees, two agency head appointees and one congressional appointee -- without partisan consideration is critical, adding that "a sustained absence" of a permanent IG "is not healthy for any office."
Horowitz also noted that the IG community is concerned about Trump’s hiring freeze.
"We believe careful consideration should be given before impacting our main resource -- namely our personnel -- that enables us to root out waste, fraud, and abuse," Horowitz said. "Many of us were already struggling, even before the hiring freeze, with finding the staffing needed to handle these matters given the growth in the number of complaints we are receiving."
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