As his administration winds down, President Obama has moved to overturn his own Justice Department's roadblocks to investigations of waste and fraud at federal agencies.
The Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016, which the president recently signed into law, overturns a July 2015 memorandum from the Justice Department’s legal counsel that restricted the types of information inspectors general could review in the course of their investigations.
Under the terms of the 1978 law creating the inspectors general, IGs were to have access to all agency documents for use in their investigations.
But in 2010, the Department of Justice and many other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Treasury Department, began withholding or extensively redacting information that they supplied to their inspectors general.
These actions were given formal cover in the Justice Department’s July 2015 memorandum.
Justice department inspector general Michael Horowitz said the restrictions prevented “independent access to agency records,” while also “hampering whistleblowers' ability to bring us evidence of waste and misconduct” in a May 12, 2016 letter to U.S. Senate leaders.
The new law contains “provisions that strengthen IG independence and equip IGs with the necessary tools to weed out waste, fraud, and abuse within the federal government, ” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
“It is a waste of time and money to have agencies at war with their inspectors general over access to information. The bureaucrats need to learn Congress intended for the law to mean exactly what it says,” Grassley said.
‘‘All records’’ means ‘‘all records,’’ Grassley said.
Supporters of the new law applauded its passage, but were concerned it did not give inspectors general the power to subpoena agency employees or contractors.
The Cause of Action Institute, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit dedicated to forcing federal agencies more transparent, said such authority was necessary, “especially in instances where an agency refuses to cooperate with an IG’s ongoing investigation.”
In remarks before the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), said the decision not to give inspectors general subpoena power was intentional so as not give what he said was a “blank check” to inspectors general to issue subpoenas to people outside of government.
“While we need to make sure that the IGs have the tools they need to do their job,” Leahy said, “the Fourth Amendment demands that we not grant administrative subpoena power lightly.”
“Such power should be granted sparingly and be narrowly tailored to protect individuals’ civil liberties,” Leahy said.
The law also instructs the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation into what Grassley said were “prolonged IG vacancies and to provide recommendations for reducing these vacancies.”
The longest standing vacancy has been at the Department of Interior. The department’s last inspector general, Earl Devaney, took a leave of absence from his post when he was appointed chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board on Feb. 23, 2009.
Mary Kendall, the Department’s deputy inspector general, was appointed to fill the vacancy in June 2015. The Senate has not acted on her appointment.
The CIA, the FDIC and Export-Import Bank have also had vacancies at the IG position for over a year, according to the Project on Government Oversight.
Some vacancies are being filled in the waning days of the Administration. On Dec. 10, the Senate confirmed Peggy Gustafson as the Department of Commerce inspector general, a post that had been vacant since June 3, 2015.