A federal inspector general is asking for the identities of employees who signed confidentiality agreements after leaving a nonprofit group that received hundreds of millions of tax dollars to work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those agreements barred employees of Arlington-based International Relief and Development from making disparaging remarks about the company to “funding agencies” or “officials of any government.”
IRD is the largest recipient of grants of any nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The majority of IRD’s funding — 82 percent of $2.4 billion since 2007 — went to USAID projects in the war zones.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko said in a letter delivered to IRD President Arthur B. Keys on Wednesday that the agreements could violate the False Claims Act and other statutes designed to protect taxpayers and whistleblowers.
In addition to the names, he asked IRD to disclose the federal contracts and grants that the employees worked on while they were with the Virginia nonprofit group, as well as any correspondence with the company. Forty-nine IRD employees signed the agreements at issue, seven on programs in Afghanistan, the nonprofit group said.
“We are actively seeking information concerning IRD’s compliance with whistleblower protection laws and regulations,” the inspector general wrote.
In a statement, the company said it was “committed to transparency and disclosure” and is cooperating with the inspector general.
“We have recently made changes to our severance agreements that make it very clear that employees may communicate with any government office or official, for any reason, at any time without fear of retaliation,” the statement said.
The existence of the agreements surfaced this month when The Washington Post published an examination of IRD and its operations. Former IRD employees told The Post they had witnessed waste and potential fraud but were fearful of coming forward because they had signed the agreements.
Initially, IRD officials said the agreements did not violate the law because employees were not prevented from cooperating with investigators. But after consulting with several lawyers, IRD reversed itself and said it was changing its policy “to ensure that our policies conform to the latest developments in employment law.”
USAID also said it is enhancing protections for whistleblowers. Assistant Administrator Angelique M. Crumbly said in a letter to Sopko that she planned to add provisions requiring anyone doing business with USAID “to comply with U.S. statutory and policy whistleblower protections.”
IRD officials said the agreements were never intended to prevent its employees from reporting fraud and the company has a compliance office and a hotline to handle complaints.
IRD General Counsel Jason Matechak told the inspector general that the employees have been notified that the agreements do not preclude them from “participating in a government audit, review, or investigation.” He also said the nonprofit “would not seek to enforce the separation agreement in a manner that would run afoul of the False Claims Act.”
Sopko said those assurances did not go far enough because they failed to shield whistleblowers who want to come forward before the initiation of federal audits.
“This omission is troubling because, as you know, the proactive disclosure of information is what often prompts the initiation of government audits, reviews and investigations in the first place,” Sopko wrote to IRD.
In addition to the names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails of the employees, Sopko told IRD to turn over copies of all separation agreements signed by its workers since 2004. He also asked IRD to disclose whether the nonprofit group ever enforced provisions of agreements. He gave IRD two weeks to comply.
Following the story in The Post, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to the inspector general, saying they were dismayed by the existence of the agreements. In an interview this week, Coburn said the language in the agreements is “something we haven’t really seen” before.
“There is nothing that should prevent people from reporting fraud and abuse to us,” he said. “Transparency is a nasty thing. It keeps people honest.”