What’s the appropriate level of White House involvement with IG findings?

The White House acknowledged this week that some of its senior officials knew in late-April that the IRS had targeted conservative groups before and after the 2010 midterms, contradicting earlier statements about an inspector general’s report that detailed the scandal.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said previously that the executive’s office was unaware of the audit findings until media reports revealed them on May 10.

Carney on Monday maintained that President Obama did not know the details of the findings, saying: “This is not the kind of thing, when you have an ongoing investigation or an ongoing audit, that requires notification to the president, because what is important is that we wait until that kind of process is completed before we take action.”

(Steve Helber/AP)
(Steve Helber/AP)

Setting aside any potential for another surprise disclosure about who knew what and when, this development raises the question of how much the White House should be in the loop with IG audits before the results become public.

The issue has a precedent. In 2005, the Defense Department inspector general shared its report on a Boeing tanker-lease scandal with the George W. Bush White House before making the details of its investigation public, according to information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the Project On Government Oversight.

The watchdog group learned that the White House and Congress agreed to redact certain information from the IG report.

POGO executive director Danielle Brian contends that such interference with the release of findings is unacceptable. “It becomes a political-damage question,” she said.

Brian said she found Monday’s revelations concerning. “I think it’s alarming when the White House is contacted before the release,” she said. “That moves this from an agency-policy issue into a political one.”

But the mere knowledge of findings is not necessarily a problem, according to Brian. She said the key is whether or not the White House tried to water down the report as a form of damage control.

“If nothing happened [after sharing the results], then it becomes less significant,” Brian said. “Just because they’re notified, that’s not the White House’s fault.”

There are few hard rules governing when and how much the White House should know about an inspector general’s report before it becomes public.

A great deal of variance exists in terms of how the 73 federal inspector general offices handle their communications with senior White House and administration officials while audits are ongoing, according to an inspector general’s attorney who asked to remain anonymous because he does not officially represent the IG community. “There could be 70 different practices and answers to that question,” he said.

It’s typical for agencies to be aware of IG reports before they become public, and even to know about the problems identified — their comments are often included in the reports.

But it would be improper for an agency or the White House to exert influence over the audit, according to Brian. “When that happens, it’s a problem,” she said.

 

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comE-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks | May 20, 2013