The House Oversight Committee, now chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, held its first hearing of the 114th Congress Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Inspectors general from a variety of different government agencies testified about a lack of transparency in federal agenies and shed led on stonewalling of internal federal government investigations by high ranking officials.
"Thank you for inviting me to testify regarding the continued challenges to the independence, access, and authority of Inspectors General. During my nearly three years as the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, I have faced several challenges in these areas. Among the most serious is the continued refusal by the Department to recognize that Section 6(a) of the Inspector General Act authorizes the DOJ OIG to obtain access to all records in the Department’s possession that we need in order to perform our oversight responsibilities," Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz said. "Delaying or denying access to agency document imperils an IG’s independence, and impedes our ability to provide the effective and independent oversight that saves taxpayers money and improves the operations of the federal government. Actions that limit, condition, or delay access have profoundly negative consequences for our work: they make us less effective, encourage other agencies to take similar actions in the future, and erode the morale of the dedicated professionals that make up our staffs. My Office knows these problems all too well, and we continue to face challenges in getting timely access to information from Department components. In particular, the FBI continues to take the position it first raised in 2010 that Section 6(a) of the Inspector General Act (IG Act) does not entitle the DOJ OIG to all records in the FBI’s possession and therefore has refused DOJ OIG requests for various types of records."
The repeated and ongoing stonewalling of internal investigations applies to matters of high controversy, including the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Operation Fast and Furious, NSA surveillance, the use of personal email accounts by government officials to evade federal records laws and more.
Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. also testified about a lack of cooperation from the FBI on internal investigations of the EPA's Homeland Security Division. He overtly stressed the importance of IG investigations in order to hold the executive branch accountable and asked for cooperation from officials and Congress to gain more access to important information.
"I have discussed today three major risks to OIG independence: access to agency documents; access to agency staff; and adequate funding. All of these are necessary to fully accomplish our mission. Yet the OIGs have control over none of these, nor ultimately can we compel solutions. All require external cooperation—from the Executive Branch for document and staff access and from the Legislative Branch for funding access," Elkins said. "As I stated when I appeared before this committee in September 2014, the concept underlying the IG Act is fragile, and can be likened to a house of cards. The removal of the cooperation card, as related to the key risks I have discussed, will cause the foundation upon which the house is built to collapse."
Two of the most alarming pieces of testimony given during the hearing came from Horowitz and Kathy Buller, inspector general for the Peace Corps. Horowitz revealed that during whistleblower investigations, the FBI reviews all material requested before submitting it to inspector general investigators, meaning there is room for alteration and cover-up of crucial information. He also said delays in document requests severely impact investigations and protections for whistleblowers. Buller testified about the lack of transparency in sexual assault cases within the Peace Corps.
"The Peace Corps Office of Inspector General access issues stem from a rather sensitive and important subject: the Peace Corps’ handling of volunteer reports of sexual assault. So I must emphasize from the outset that our push for access goes beyond our zeal for upholding the basic principle that transparency and accountability are the hallmarks of good governance. Our push for access is about fulfilling our collective responsibility to ensure that we – Congress, the Peace Corps, and OIG – do everything we can 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," Buller said. "Congress and the Peace Corps have the power to solve this issue. Congress could take legislative action in one way or another to ensure we get full access to agency record."
Congress members were asked by all three Inspectors General who testified to reevaluate and strengthen current law that gives IGs access to all government documents necessary for proper oversight.