Watchdog of the U.S. Treasury Seal, 1800

Federal watchdogs have opened a new front in their battle with the Justice Department for access to records to root out waste, fraud and abuse, an appeal to Congress for legislation affirming their authority to conduct independent oversight.

The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which represents 72 inspectors general across the federal government, sent a letter to congressional leaders just before a Senate committee is scheduled  to hold a hearing on the issue Wednesday. The watchdogs say a ruling last month by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel undermines the landmark legislation Congress passed in 1978 that created the position of inspector general.

[Justice watchdog blasts his own agency for blocking access to wiretaps and other records]

Here’s an excerpt from the letter, signed by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, chairman of the council, and its three top officers:

In the over three decades since the IG Act’s passage, Inspectors General have saved taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and improved the programs and operations of the Federal government through their independent oversight. Actions that limit, condition, or delay access to all agency information have profoundly negative consequences for our work: they make us less effective and erode the morale of the dedicated professionals who make up our staffs and are committed to the difficult task of government oversight.

The Justice Department ruled in a memo July 20 that inspectors general who want access to sensitive law enforcement information have to get permission from the agency they’re monitoring for wiretaps, grand jury testimony and credit information. Justice officialshave said they plan to hand over documents in most cases, as long as the records are connected to investigations of misconduct or criminal activity. A prosecutor will review requests for sensitive grand jury testimony, officials said.

The agency also has pledged to turn over records faster, after Horowitz complained to Congress that numerous investigations by his staff, particularly into wrongdoing at the Drug Enforcement Administration, were delayed. 

But the inspectors general, in their letter to leaders of the Senate and House committees that oversee government operations, wrote that by not entitling them to independent access to these records, lawyers at the Justice Department are stymying their investigations.

“We are concerned that witnesses and other agency personnel, faced with uncertainty regarding the applicability of the [legal] opinion to other records and situations, may now be less forthcoming and fearful of being accused of improperly divulging information,” the watchdogs wrote of what they called a “restrictive reading” of the law. They also said the new rules could deter whistleblowers from reporting wrongdoing.