August 7, 2014
Billions of tax dollars are being lost every day to waste, fraud and corruption in the federal government, but President Obama’s administration is blocking inspectors general — the officials who are most likely to find and expose such wrongdoing — from doing their jobs. That’s the disturbing message given to Congress and the American people this week from a majority of the federal government’s 78 IGs. The blocking occurs when agency lawyers deny the authority of IGs to gain access to relevant documents and officials.
The 47 IGs minced no words: “Each of us strongly supports the principle that an inspector general must have complete, unfiltered, and timely access to all information and materials available to the agency that relate to that IG’s oversight activities, without unreasonable administrative burdens. The importance of this principle, which was codified by Congress in Section 6(a)(1) of the Inspector General Act of 1978, as amended (the IG Act), cannot be overstated. Refusing, restricting, or delaying an IG's access to documents leads to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings or recommendations, which in turn may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency’s performance.”
Three specific examples were described in the IGs' letter, including blatant obstruction of important investigations at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice and the Peace Corps. But many other IGs have “faced similar obstacles to their work, whether on a claim that some other law or principle trumped the clear mandate of the IG Act or by the agency’s imposition of unnecessarily burdensome administrative conditions on access. Even when we are ultimately able to resolve these issues with senior agency leadership, the process is often lengthy, delays our work, and diverts time and attention from substantive oversight activities.”
The experience of Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz is especially outrageous. In a Senate hearing in April, Horowitz said his office must go through Attorney General Eric Holder to gain access to DOJ documents and officials. Giving Holder the power to veto an IG’s access in that manner egregiously violates the 1978 law and other statutes. Obstruction like Holder’s risks “leaving the agencies insulated from scrutiny and unacceptably vulnerable to mismanagement and misconduct – the very problems that our offices were established to review and that the American people expect us to be able to address,” the IGs said in their letter to Congress.
It is impossible to know exactly how much the federal bureaucracy loses every year to waste, fraud and corruption. Credible estimates put the total at more than $200 billion, but in a $3.5 trillion budget it could easily far exceed that amount. Every time an IG is barred from gaining access to vital documents or officials, it encourages even more wrongdoing. Congress must get tough with people in the executive branch who obstruct IGs from doing their jobs. And when it’s the attorney general doing the obstructing, it’s time to bring back independent prosecutors.