IGs press Senate on records access

A group of inspectors general appealed to congressional leaders to change a Justice Department order they say is preventing them from carrying out their oversight duties.

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A group of inspectors general has appealed to the Senate to help change a Justice Department order they say prevents them from performing their watchdog role by restricting independent access to agency data and hampering whistleblowers' ability to bring IGs evidence of waste and misconduct.

In a May 12 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency said a July 2015 decision by Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is the problem.

The agency ruled that the 1978 Inspector General Act does not give Justice's IG the authority for independent access to all records in the agency's possession that are critical to its oversight duties.

"The OLC's restrictive reading of the IG Act represents a threat to the independence of all inspectors general and creates a serious challenge to our collective ability to have timely and independent access to agency records -- access that is central to our ability to engage in the oversight that is at the core of the IG Act," the letter states, which is signed by CIGIE chair and Justice IG Michael Horowitz and Kathy Buller, chair of CIGIE's Legislation Committee and the Peace Corps' IG.

Horowitz has long led an effort to roll back Obama administration restrictions on IG access to agency materials, such as grand jury, credit and wiretap information. Administration lawyers have argued that such materials are subject to competing statutory protections.

An update to the language in the fiscal 2016 funding law had the effect of countering the OLC opinion at the agencies funded by the Commerce, Justice and science appropriation. However, the legislation does not cover other agencies, and it will expire at the end of the fiscal year if it is not renewed.

"Without reversing the July 2015 OLC opinion, Congress will increasingly be asked to arbitrate such disputes or to remind agencies that 'all' means 'all,'" the CIGIE letter states.

Horowitz and Buller urged the senators to back the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015, which puts new restrictions on agencies' suspension of IGs.