The Internal Revenue Service headquarters in Washington D.C. (Credit: Washington Post) The Internal Revenue Service headquarters in Washington D.C. (Credit: Washington Post)

The controversy surrounding the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration's report on the Internal Revenue Service has highlighted how little most people know about the standard protocol for dealing with these investigations once they're underway. David Sampson was in charge of handling IG reports as deputy secretary of the Commerce Department between 2005 and 2007; he is now president and CEO of Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, and agreed to share a few key insights with us about the delicate task of coping with independent oversight of an agency's operations. It turns out it's not always what you might think.

1. The inspector general’s staff don't keep the topics of their investigations hidden from top agency officials. "They would regularly come in and brief me on their management audits, and areas that they were concerned about," Sampson said.

2. If the IG's office comes across major problems, they often alert decision-makers within the department. “If I came across management issues, performance issues or problems that rose to a level of concern, they would take the initiative and come and brief on those so that we could begin to take remedial or corrective action," Sampson said, "even before the IG finalized their report.”

3. In some instances, senior agency officials act on problems identified in an ongoing probe. In Sampson's case, for example, the Commerce Department had to cope with the breach of confidential information once the U.S. Census Bureau lost some of its laptops. During that investigation, the Commerce IG pointed out some of the steps the department could take to deal with the disclosure, allowing Sampson and others to take corrective action before a final report was issued.

While the White House needs to be extremely careful in how it deals with an agency IG investigation, Sampson said, there are times when department officials can rectify the situation "instead of just letting a problem go on and on." The administration, he added, appears to be suggesting “you either engage and interfere in a management audit or you do nothing. That’s just a false dichotomy.”

And if the past is prologue, each new administration will have to decide how best to navigate this sensitive area of government accountability. One thing is certain: any future probe of the IRS' inner workings is sure to get the kind of extra level of scrutiny the agency spent a year and-a-half lavishing on groups with the words "tea party," "patriot" and "9/12" in their names.