It’s hard for inspectors general to be watchdogs when chained by their agencies.
IG employees investigate waste, fraud and other things that go wrong in federal places. They often work in the same buildings and eat in the same cafeterias as those they investigate, yet they stand apart. While legally under the supervision of an agency’s top boss, the IG is not supervised by that boss.
IGs are designed by law to be independent and agencies are not permitted to interfere with their investigations.
So it was extraordinary when 47 inspectors general, about two-thirds of the lot, wrote to Capitol Hill in August to complain that interference does happen. Unsatisfied since Congress looked into the allegations last year, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will again examine obstacles to 13,000 IG employees at a hearing Tuesday.
Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) acknowledges some progress, but adds: “A lot of daylight has passed since August and it’s still a problem.”
In a related development, the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, wrote to Chaffetz on Friday about “a longstanding disagreement” among the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of homeland security, the agency’s IG and the FBI concerning the exchange of information in national security-related investigations.
In this case, “a final resolution appears to be within reach,” Cummings said.
Although the August letter from the inspectors general focused on problems IGs had with three agencies, — the Justice Department, the Peace Corps and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board — they said that “others faced similar obstacles to their work, whether on a claim that some other law or principle trumped the clear mandate of the IG Act or by the agency’s imposition of unnecessarily burdensome administrative conditions on access.”
The Peace Corps is a case in point.
In testimony submitted for Tuesday’s hearing, Kathy A. Buller, the Peace Corps IG, says the agency continues to hamper her duties by invoking another law to inappropriately overrule her legal mandate. After her testimony in September, the Peace Corps did grant her office greater access to information, but she said that was only after “two years of discussions with the agency and members of Congress, two congressional hearings, negative press coverage, a hold being placed on the nomination of the Director, and, ultimately, the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the agency and OIG [Office of Inspector General].”
“Much work remains to be done to undo the damage caused by these access-denying policies,” she added.
This situation is a particularly sensitive one because it involves the agency’s handling of sexual assault allegations from Peace Corps volunteers stationed abroad. The horrific stories related by my colleague Lisa Rein in 2011 include one in which a 27-year-old volunteer was raped after being told she was going to be kidnapped into marriage. The woman said a Peace Corps security officer told her “not to worry.”
There is no indication that this 2004 case is among those Buller’s office reviewed. Yet it does show that this dispute over information is more than an intramural contest between bureaucrats protecting territory.
Buller said her push for access “goes beyond our zeal” for agency transparency and is meant “to ensure our volunteers, who sacrifice so much when serving in remote corners of the world, receive the services they need when they are victims of a sexual assault.”
Her sense of urgency is backed by the IG act, which says IGs are entitled “to have access to all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material.”
An opinion by the agency’s former general counsel, however, said that another law, the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, rules.
Agency officials argue that “the Peace Corps has an overriding obligation not to disclose volunteers’ personally identifying information or the graphic details of the assault to anyone other than those directly involved in providing statutorily specified support services.”
But the Puzey law provides exceptions, including when the release of the information is “required by Federal or State statute,” which seems to include the statute authorizing IGs to get all the information they need.
Furthermore, Buller said, she doesn’t like having to make an agreement with the agency to get information her office is entitled to in the first place.
“As long as that [general counsel’s] opinion remains in place,” she said, “the Peace Corps is free to rescind our agreement and withhold or delay OIG access to sexual assault reports.”
That is not a situation Chaffetz finds acceptable.
“We’ve got to be able to get the inspectors general to do their jobs,” he said. “If they can’t do their jobs, we can’t do our jobs.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.