Frustration with federal agencies that block probes from their inspectors general bubbled over Tuesday in a congressional hearing that dug into allegations of obstruction from a number of government watchdogs.
The Peace Corps, Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department inspectors general each argued to members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that some of their investigations had been thwarted or stalled by officials who refused to release necessary information to their offices.
Committee members from both parties doubled down on criticisms of the Justice Department's lack of transparency and called for solutions to the government-wide problem during their first official hearing of the 114th Congress.
“If you can’t do your job, then we can’t do our job in Congress,” Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told the three witnesses and the scores of agency watchdogs who also attended, including the Department of Homeland Security and General Service Administration inspectors general.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, testified that the FBI began reviewing requested documents in 2010 in what he said was a clear violation of federal law that is supposed to grant watchdogs unfettered access to agency records.
The FBI’s process, which involves clearing the release of documents with the attorney general or deputy attorney general, “seriously impairs inspector general independence, creates excessive delays, and may lead to incomplete, inaccurate or significantly delayed findings or recommendations,” Horowitz said.
Still, Horowitz rebuffed suggestions from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia, that Congress should draft a legislative solution to the problem of agency obstruction.
“If Congress took this up ... when everyone in the IG community thinks it’s crystal clear,” the bill’s delay or failure could be cited in agency efforts to withhold more documents, Horowitz said.
Arthur Elkins, the EPA watchdog, highlighted the challenges that can arise when IGs attempt to extract testimony from an unwilling agency official.
“We have had situations where we attempt to interview an employee, and the employee refuses,” Elkins said. “If the employee continues to refuse to comply with both the" Office of Inspector General "and the agency, we are left without recourse.”
The hearing came nearly six months after 46 IGs signed their name to a letter expressing concerns that agency officials systematically compromise IG independence by denying them full access.
Peace Corps IG Kathy Buller echoed those sentiments by decrying a “memorandum of understanding” with the agency that her office had felt compelled to sign in the wake of a dispute over the watchdog’s access to sensitive records.
Buller twice raised the issue in testimony last year after the Peace Corps’ poor handling of sexual assault reports from its overseas volunteers became the subject of public scrutiny. She claimed her team had been denied full access to related documents in its probe of sexual assault cases.
“I remain concerned about the appropriateness of my office having to enter into an MOU to obtain information we are entitled to by law and that we need to fulfill our statutory duties,” Buller said. “Allowing agencies to unilaterally decide when they can or cannot release information to the IG presents a clear conflict of interest.”