The top members of the House and Senate oversight committees have come out in support of the inspectors general who raised concerns last week about timely access to agency records during investigations.
In a bipartisan letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan on Friday, the lawmakers said that inspectors general’s access to records “should be beyond question” in most cases. They also called on the OMB chief to ensure that federal agencies are well-versed in the terms of the 1978 Inspector General Act.
“When conflict arises between an agency and an Inspector General, agencies should engage quickly and proactively with the affected Inspector General to try to resolve any possible conflicts in a manner that allows the Inspector General to do his or her work,” the lawmakers said.
The Inspector General Act states that the independent watchdogs should be allowed “access to all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material” that are “necessary and desirable” to fulfill their duties.
The letter was signed by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who head the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who lead the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Forty-seven inspectors general last week issued a letter to the lawmakers saying agencies frequently hinder their oversight efforts by limiting access to records. They pointed to three specific examples with the Justice Department, the Peace Corps and the Chemical Safety Board.
The lawmakers expressed “grave concerns” about the issues raised by the inspectors general.
The agencies in question eventually provided the requested materials in all three cases mentioned by the watchdogs, but only after resisting on grounds that the information was privileged or otherwise protected.
The Justice Department told The Washington Post that its delay was the result of trying to find an exception to federal laws that protect “grand jury material, credit reports, and other information whose dissemination is restricted by law.”
In the Peace Corps example, the agency withheld records of sexual assaults against its volunteers, but it eventually allowed the information to be viewed under a special agreement — the agency still has not allowed unfettered access.
As for the Chemical Safety Board, the agency had argued that attorney-client privilege prevented it from providing access to documents related to a discrimination case. Agency spokeswoman Hilary Cohen said Tuesday that providing the requested materials “could have harmed the agency and taxpayers in any future litigation of the matter.” The agency ultimately handed over the records.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), one of the more vocal proponents of inspectors general during the Obama administration, said last week that legislation could help avoid similar clashes. Lawmakers have discussed drafting legislation this fall to address various concerns with access to information for the independent watchdogs.