Justice Dept. to provide watchdog faster access to records

AP News
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Posted: May 03, 2016 6:17 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department said it intends to provide its inspector general with quicker access to documents that the watchdog office says it's been delayed in receiving.

Those materials include grand jury testimony, credit information and communications obtained from law enforcement wiretaps.

The announcement follows a directive from Congress for the department — and several other federal government agencies — to be more responsive to information requests from their internal watchdogs.

The policy also provides at least a temporary resolution to a Justice Department debate over access to documents the inspector general has said it needs for its investigations. The dispute flared publicly last year after the department's Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion that sought to clarify the conditions under which the inspector general could receive grand jury information and other sensitive documents that are otherwise shielded by law from disclosure for privacy reasons.

The Justice Department's watchdog said challenges in collecting that information from the department has led to delays in major investigations, including one concluded last year into overseas sex parties attended by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

In a memo this week to Justice Department component agencies, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said responding to inspector general requests is "of the highest priority."

She said that in light of the new guidance from Congress, the department may now disclose to the inspector general's office grand jury, credit and wiretap information "without any additional procedures or delay" and regardless of whether any other statute would prohibit their release.

The Justice Department had asked Congress to remove conflicts between the Inspector General Act of 1978, which generally authorizes the inspector general to have access to all records and reports that it needed for investigations, and other statutes that protect from disclosure certain categories of sensitive information such as grand jury testimony.

The department's Office of Legal Counsel said in its opinion last year that those statutes permitted the disclosure of that material in "most, but not all, of the circumstances" in which they might be requested. The inspector general's office objected to that conclusion, saying it was entitled without delay to access the records that it seeks, and the Justice Department asked Congress to clear up the conflict and streamline the process.

Congress addressed the matter through a recently enacted spending measure that covers the remainder of the fiscal year and mandates faster access for the Justice Department inspector general and a handful of other watchdogs, including for the Commerce Department and NASA. But the department says it would still like a more permanent legislative fix.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a statement Tuesday that he appreciated Congress' support for his office. He called on lawmakers to pass legislation, known as the IG Empowerment Act, to ensure that the 72 inspectors general "have access to the information they need on a permanent basis."

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