Michael Horowitz, inspector general with the Department of Justice, says his office will  post summaries of investigations on its Web site.
( Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post, file)

When high-level federal employees break the rules, their misconduct is often swept from public view so agencies can avoid embarrassment. Some employees are then allowed to quietly retire rather than have to face the consequences of their actions. For the public, the secrecy smacks of poor accountability in government.

At the Department of Justice last week, Inspector General Michael Horowitz took a step toward removing the cloak of secrecy around employee misconduct with a new policy: His office will post summaries of investigations on its Web site. In an e-mail to congressional staff, chief of staff and senior counsel Jay Lerner described the change as an “effort to provide greater transparency about investigative findings”

Here’s the universe of administrative misconduct cases that will now be public, Lerner wrote:

(i) members of the Senior Executive Service and employees at the GS-15 grade level or above, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys, in which the [Office of Inspector General] found misconduct and no prosecution resulted; or (ii) high-profile investigations, or where there may otherwise be significant public interest as determined by the OIG.

While Justice has one of the smaller inspector general staffs — the Defense Department and U.S. Postal Service are huge by comparison — members of Congress and government oversight groups hope Horowitz will set an important precedent for the other 72 watchdogs, who as a rule don’t make their investigations public except when lawmakers or reporters request them under the Freedom of Information Act. Horowitz is chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a watchdog over the watchdogs that also sets policy.

In March, the Senate committee that oversees government operations passed bipartisan legislation that would strengthen the independence of inspectors general in several ways, including by requiring them to keep Congress informed when agencies fail to reprimand employees found guilty of misconduct and to share with lawmakers investigations they have kept from the public.

“I applaud the actions taken by the Department of Justice [inspector general] to post to its website, in real-time, report summaries of its investigations and inspections,” committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement. He’s sponsoring the bill with Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)

“It is my hope that as a result of the new [Justice] policy, additional inspectors general across the federal government will implement similar polices of transparency,” Johnson wrote.

Horowitz’s office posted its first investigative summary last week. It concerns a U.S. marshal who had a five-year affair with an employee whom the marshal supervised for much of that time. The marshal also arranged a transfer for the employee from headquarters to a position in the marshal’s district. Not only that, but the marshal “engaged in an intimate personal relationship” with another subordinate’s “family member.”

The marshal is not named in the report — an area where full transparency hits some roadblocks. Federal employees have strong protections under the Privacy Act, and policies governing disclosure of names vary among inspectors general. The Commerce Department, for example, identifies most senior executives in misconduct cases. It did so last week with a report on U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who was found to have hired a head hunter to find a replacement for a senior Census employee without competitive bidding.

But Commerce does not identify employees by name at the GS-15 level or below. For now, Commerce does not post its reports unless three news organizations file Freedom of Information requests.

John Lavinsky, a spokesman for the Justice Department inspector general’s office, declined to say what the policy on naming employees will be.

Justice investigators reported that they referred the marshal’s case to the Marshal’s Service and the attorney general’s office. And, guess what? Here’s the last line of the report:

“The subject has retired.”