Inspectors general are an odd sort, not personally but in terms of their place in government. They are part of the agencies they serve yet stand apart as they investigate their colleagues and probe their agencies for waste, fraud and abuse. Nominally under top political leadership, they often find fault with the programs and policies the agency leadership promotes.
It can be a tricky situation that can threaten the independence critical to the IGs’ mission. The most recent example is the naked attempt by the acting secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs to control, if not intimidate, its inspector general.
Acting secretary Peter O’Rourke tried to pull rank over VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal after his complaint that VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection was not providing requested information.
In a letter to Missal last month, O’Rourke said the IG appears “to misunderstand the independent nature of your role and operate as a completely unfettered autonomous agency. You are reminded that OIG [the Office of the Inspector General] is loosely tethered to VA and in your specific case as the VA Inspector General, I am your immediate supervisor. You are directed to act accordingly.”
It is O’Rourke who misunderstands the IG’s role and independence, as a flurry of bipartisan criticism let him know.
Calling the letter “an unprecedented attack,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement: “Never before have I seen such an explicit attempt by a senior government official to curtail an active IG investigation. Mr. O’Rourke, nobody is above the law and it is not for you to decide when or where VA OIG exercises its investigative authority.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he supports “the independence of the Office of the Inspector General and firmly believes the inspector general has the authority to review documents and conduct interviews in the course of its oversight duties.”
The Senate responded with a unanimous vote to prohibit VA from any spending that would block the IG’s access to department records. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the panel and sponsor of the measure, called VA’s lack of cooperation an “alarming disservice to American veterans and taxpayers.”
Few agency heads are as open in their hostility to IG independence as O’Rourke was, but this case is not the only example.
The report by the Bipartisan Policy Center said, “IGs sometimes meet resistance within their agencies when requesting such information.” It cited efforts from 2014 to 2017 by the Justice and Commerce departments to deny IGs records. Congress reacted by passing the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016 “to ensure IGs across government have timely access to agency records,” said Dan Blair, a senior consultant and fellow at the center.
In another case, the Commerce Department withheld records in 2016 until a Senate Appropriations subcommittee drafted a provision restricting spending for the department’s general counsel. Before the measure had a vote, the department “relented and provided access to the IG,” according to the center’s report.
“These are two specific cases in which the power of the purse was used to support IGs,” the center said. “… These instances demonstrate the necessary role Congress must play in supporting IGs.”
IG independence is crucial, but “we believe the more pressing systemic problems are the endless IG vacancies and the meaningless reporting requirements mandated by Congress in their semi-annual reports,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which also issued a report on IGs.
“The nearly two dozen … reporting requirements that focus on quantitative analysis actually create a disincentive for IGs to do more meaningful work that impacts health, safety and protecting constitutional rights,” Brian said.
Out of 73 IG positions, appointed by the president or an agency head, 13 are vacant, according to POGO. The vacancies ranged from 83 days at the Government Publishing Office to 3,424 days at the Interior Department, dating from the second month of the Obama administration.
“The vacancies are frankly predictable,” Brian added, “given that no President relishes filling up the executive branch with devoted junkyard dogs.”