Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General does not have the authority to investigate suspected misconduct by the attorney general, deputy attorney general or other senior department lawyers, and the man who heads that office thinks it should.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, during a little-noticed hearing this week, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that the lack of jurisdiction — unique to the Justice Department — “contravenes the principles and spirit” of the law that created the independent watchdog agencies.

Mr. Fine, who was confirmed as inspector general in December 2000, called the Justice Department policy a “limitation on the jurisdiction” of his office, saying it was “inappropriate and in need of change.”

He said his office, like every other inspector general’s office in the federal government, should have unlimited jurisdiction.

Mr. Fine’s comments came Wednesday before Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and the ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who seek to strengthen the independence and accountability of federal inspectors general.

The lawmakers are concerned that some inspectors general have been retaliated against by agency heads for critical investigations, while others have lacked appropriate independence.

Mr. Fine said that while his office can investigate misconduct throughout the department, he lacks the authority to investigate accusations against department attorneys acting in their capacity as lawyers — litigating, investigating or providing legal advice.

He said that includes accusations against the attorney general, deputy attorney general and other senior department lawyers now under the jurisdiction of the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).

Mr. Fine cited a directive by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to OPR to investigate all aspects of the removal of eight U.S. attorneys as an example of his lack of jurisdiction and independence.

“In essence, the attorney general assigned OPR — an entity that does not have statutory independence and reports directly to the deputy attorney general and attorney general — to investigate a matter involving the attorney general’s and the deputy attorney general’s conduct,” he said.

Mr. Fine said the jurisdictional limitations create “a conflict of interest” and it “contravenes the rationale for establishing independent inspectors general throughout the government.

In April, Mr. Gonzales asked OPR — working with the Inspector General’s Office — to investigate the firing of the U.S. attorneys “so that Congress and the American people can be 100 percent assured … that nothing improper occurred.”

Mr. Fine objected to the request, saying the Inspector General’s Office was the only “appropriate entity” to conduct the investigation. While OPR disagreed, saying it had jurisdiction, the two eventually agreed to conduct a joint inquiry.

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