Justice Dept. watchdog complains of interference

AP News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2014 9:45 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department's inspector general said Tuesday that his staff is routinely blocked from getting access to documents it needs for audits and reviews of the department and its law enforcement agencies.

The interference causes delays in investigations and has several times required the intervention of Attorney General Eric Holder or his deputy to ensure that the records are ultimately turned over, Michael Horowitz, the inspector general, told members of Congress.

Horowitz's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee came one month after nearly 50 inspectors general from a broad spectrum of federal agencies complained in a letter to Congress about similar obstruction from the departments they monitor. The inspectors general said in that letter that congressional action might be needed to ensure compliance with their requests.

A 1978 law entitles inspectors general, who serve as watchdogs and investigate mismanagement, fraud and other problems at government agencies, to the records that they need for their probes. But in the last few years, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have denied timely access to records the office is entitled to under federal law, including grand jury materials, organizational charts, and wiretap and credit information, Horowitz testified.

After the hearing, the FBI denied that it hindered investigations and said it worked closely with the inspector general.

Horowitz testified that the refusal to grant routine requests stalls or impedes investigations — including a recent one on the FBI's handling of material witnesses — meaning that officials who are under review have sometimes retired or left the agencies before the report is complete.

"There are an innumerable number of issues that result from the delays that we face that are problematic," he said.

The disputes over documents are typically resolved only after Holder, or Deputy Attorney General James Cole, have stepped in to grant permission to the inspector general. But Horowitz said it shouldn't have to come that.

"We should be able to get direct access to information," he said, adding that a witness at the FBI who wants to directly approach the inspector general's office with information should be able to do so.

"We shouldn't have to go make a request to the legal counsel, have them go look through the documents and get them eventually — hopefully," he added.

The Justice Department in May asked its Office of Legal Counsel to issue a legal opinion addressing the objections raised by the FBI. That request is pending.

In a statement Tuesday, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the "vast majority" of information that is requested is provided without problem.

"However, there are a very limited number of instances in which legal questions arise regarding what we are lawfully allowed to produce, which may require a more thorough review to ensure the FBI is on sound legal footing in providing requested records," Bresson said.

Members of the panel said they were concerned about the inspector general's ability to conduct independent oversight if needed information is not provided.

"I suspect that membership of this committee is virtually unanimous in recognizing the need for vigorous oversight of the Department of Justice," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the committee.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the situation was "outrageous."

"The inspector general should have unfettered access to all the information they want," he said. "And when it's got to the point where they can't even see an organizational chart, it's reached the level of absurdity that must be addressed immediately."

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