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Watchdog interference: Inspectors General say agencies hinder investigations

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In an unusually public spat, the independent watchdogs inside a dozen federal agencies are alleging government officials have hindered sensitive investigations on topics ranging from missing federal firearms to computer security breaches. The interference, they say, is undermining the very accountability Congress intended when it enacted the Inspectors General Act more than three decades ago.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained copies of letters the inspectors general wrote to the U.S. Senate describing allegations of foot-dragging and slow production of documents in the course of investigations. The problems reportedly occurred in some of the largest Cabinet agencies, including the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Education Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I am writing to report that the OIG is being denied unrestricted and unfettered access to information from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for use in investigations of possible fraud … by failed financial institutions,” said Eric Thorson, who runs the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Thorson said he unsuccessfully asked Comptroller John Dugan, who recently resigned as chief of the agency, to release bank examination information. In the letter, Thorson noted that the inspector general is responsible for investigating any attempts by banks “to interfere with or defraud” examinations conducted by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates some of the largest U.S. banks.

Another watchdog said the very federal agents the EPA entrusts with enforcing the law were instead hindering an investigation into whether weapons under the control of the agents were stolen, lost of missing. The letter wasn’t more specific and officials declined to provide details, citing the ongoing probe.

“During our audit, evaluation and investigative work, EPA has failed to provide information in a timely manner or failed to provide complete information upon request on numerous occasions,” EPA Acting Inspector General Bill Roderick wrote.

Senior managers for the EPA’s criminal investigators “either refused to cooperate or were marginally responsive to our numerous request for documents and information,” Roderick wrote. “This has impeded our investigation and forced us to rely on other investigative techniques.”

Stonewalling, or refusing to respond to a watchdog’s request, occurred in other departments. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, reported that the State Department “has not, to date, provided complete data on the cost of the contract for providing trainers for the Iraqi Police Training Program.” Bowen made the initial request 15 months ago.

Watchdogs empowered to root out fraud

Congress passed the Inspectors General Act of 1978 to create independent watchdogs in all major federal agencies who could root out instances of waste, fraud, abuse and corruption and audit the work of federal employees. Today, there are 73 inspectors general empowered to investigate wrongdoing across the federal government.

Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma recently asked all the inspectors what sort of cooperation they were getting from the people they investigated and to identify any instances in which they were being stymied.

A dozen inspectors general sent letters identifying specific problems, according to Senate staff.

Grassley said those letters raise serious questions about whether watchdogs are getting the cooperation and independence required under the law.

“Inspectors general can’t conduct effective oversight of tax dollars and programs when the very agencies subject to the oversight impose delays, red tape, and roadblocks,” Grassley told the Center. “To let this continue in the executive branch is letting the fox decide who gets in the henhouse.”

The senators have sent letters to each federal agency where watchdogs have cited problems and demanded answers or corrective actions. The agencies are due to respond to the concerns as early as Wednesday.

The White House budget office said Tuesday it expects all federal agencies to cooperate with oversight.

“The Administration believes that Inspectors General are important to having an accountable government, and we are confident that each of the agency heads who received these letters will take them seriously and follow up on them expeditiously,” said Office of Management Budget spokesman Kenneth Baer.

Social Security, Homeland Security

Some inspectors general said their frustration grew out of a single case.

The chief watchdog for the Social Security Administration told Grassley and Coburn that while he enjoys a good relationship with the agency’s administrator there has been one major instance in which investigators have been unable to determine whether the agency is complying with privacy laws.

“We have encountered delays in audit and investigative work, and have even rejected or abandoned audit and investigative projects due to delays occasioned by the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act (CMPPA) and the agency’s implementation thereof,” SSA Inspector General Patrick P. O’Carroll wrote. “Delays and obstacles encountered in obtaining the agency’s cooperation in executing computer matching agreements has on occasion made a difficult situation even more frustrating.”

Clark Kent Ervin, the Department of the Homeland Security’s first inspector general, who is now running the Aspen Institute’s homeland security program, says some tension is normal because a watchdog’s work threatens to expose wrongdoing within an agency.

“That said, it’s surprising that there’s any degree of resistance from the Obama administration, given the administration’s commendable emphasis on transparency and oversight,” Ervin said.

Some inspectors general reported that conditions had improved since October 2008, the beginning of the period about which Coburn and Grassley were asking.

Richard Skinner, now responsible for oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, wrote that conditions had improved since Congress withheld $15 million from the department’s appropriation until then-Secretary Michael Chertoff, a Bush appointee, sent a memo to employees encouraging them to work with inspectors.

Nevertheless, Skinner wrote that he was concerned because the department’s Customs and Border Protection division is conducting internal criminal investigations on its own, an activity that he believe falls “outside the scope of its legal authority.”

David Berry, inspector general for the National Labor Relations Board, said in an interview that the one incident he brought up in his letter to the senators was “not something that I ever would have contemplated reporting to Congress,” had they not asked for a list of such incidents.

Berry sent a letter in June to the senators saying that administrators at the agency were refusing to let auditors have passwords to the system that would let them check if federal employees were cheating on their use of travel and purchase credit cards. Agency officials cited financial privacy concerns as the reason for refusing access.

The refusal “is little more than gamesmanship that creates needless bureaucratic hurdles that impede our oversight activities,” Berry wrote.

The Commerce Department’s inspector wrote that in late 2008 his office “was continuing to experience certain information access issues” and that under the new administration, “from time to time, agency operating units may ‘filter’ OIG access to information.”

However, inspector Todd Zinser added that the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau had “has since amended its guidelines and policies to provide OIG staff greater access.” In fact, the watchdog and the Census Bureau director even set up twice-weekly conference calls to discuss the bureau’s decennial survey. “These calls provide unprecedented access to the Census Director, enabling the parties to address — in real time — problems the OIG and GAO are finding.”