The Justice Department’s internal watchdog offered Congress fresh evidence Tuesday that the Obama administration is failing to meet its promises of transparency, accusing department officials of interfering with his independent investigations into employee wrongdoing.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz told House lawmakers that Justice officials have declined to turn over documents and delayed cooperation with his investigators, undermining their role under the law to provide independent oversight to an agency with far-reaching powers to arrest or sue Americans, prosecute crimes and guard against terrorism.
“Access by inspectors general to information in agency files goes to the heart of our mission to provide independent and nonpartisan oversight,” he said.
Mr. Horowitz suggested to the House Judiciary Committee that it might be time for Congress to give his office “authority over all misconduct” cases inside the department, potentially trumping the offices of professional responsibility that also police department employees’ conduct.
Justice Department officials declined immediate comment and referred reporters instead to a statement in July by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole that suggested the department tries to work with inspectors general and congressional oversight committees but has limits to what information it can share when ongoing investigations are involved.
“In order to protect the integrity and independence of this investigation, we cannot disclose non-public information about the investigation while it remains pending,” Mr. Cole said at the time.
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On Tuesday, Mr. Horowitz singled out FBI officials for withholding case files and other documents during an investigation into whether the bureau violated the civil rights of material witnesses in terrorism cases. Mr. Horowitz said the FBI declined to turn over the case files until conducting a page-by-page review to ensure any legally sensitive information was redacted.
“These preproduction reviews have caused substantial delays to OIG reviews and have undermined the OIG’s independence by giving the entity we are reviewing unilateral control over what information the OIG receives, and what it does not,” investigators said in a report that accompanied Mr. Horowitz’s testimony.
During the hearing, Mr. Horowitz said some offices have not read the Inspector General Act of 1978, which says investigators are entitled to review all sensitive data as long as they take steps to make sure it is not disclosed to inappropriate parties.
Mr. Horowitz said several of the disputes have been resolved only by the help of top Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Mr. Cole.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said no one should stand in the way of investigators working at the behest of Congress and the American people.
“The conduct of meaningful oversight by any office of inspector general depends on complete and timely access to all agency materials and data,” he said.
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Mr. Goodlatte said attempts by certain offices to hinder investigations show “an agency that believes the OIG must ask for and receive permission to review DOJ data and material.”
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, whose group investigates public corruption, called the inspector general’s finding unsurprising.
“The Department of Justice is notorious for refusing to follow transparency laws,” he said, noting that Congress already has held Mr. Holder in contempt once for refusing to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious scandal.
“Why would it be a surprise they’re stonewalling other investigations?” he said.
Congress could take a range of actions, Mr. Fitton said, such as imposing aggressive oversight, cutting the Justice Department’s budget or delaying confirmation of presidential nominees until changes are made.
The inspectors general, intended to be independent watchdogs inside federal agencies, increasingly have been warning that the ability to do their jobs is hampered by government employees as other investigators try to look into subjects that could be damaging to the administration, such as the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups.
Recently, 47 inspectors general sent a joint letter to the government reform committees in both chambers of Congress, advocating that they need unimpaired access to agency records in order to serve the American people.
Investigators, the letter said, have encountered “potentially serious challenges to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”
The letter listed the Justice Department, the Peace Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency as agencies that especially tried to impose “serious limitations” on inspector general activity.
On Monday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, sent a letter to Mr. Holder with “serious concerns” about Justice Department attempts to pre-empt investigations into IRS wrongdoing.
Mr. Issa said a Justice Department employee called his committee staff — in a mistaken belief that he had called Democrats on the committee — and requested a leak of sensitive documents to the media.
The apparent goal, Mr. Issa said, was to give the department time to comment on the documents and make public statements in an attempt to undercut the Republicans’ release of the information and hearings about misconduct.
“This effort to preemptively release incomplete and selectively chosen information undermines the Department’s claims that it is responding in good faith,” Mr. Issa’s letter to the attorney general read.
Having promised that his administration would be one of the most transparent, President Obama instead received widespread criticism for clamping down on the release of certain information amid accusations that agencies are making it more difficult for watchdogs to do their jobs.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, said government oversight shouldn’t be partisan.
“We change majorities, the White House changes, but we have got to make sure the inspector general gets the information it needs,” Mr. Gohmert said.
Mr. Horowitz also noted that the Justice Department investigators also have had trouble gaining access to documents about Operation Fast and Furious, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Under the operation, designed to track guns to Mexican drug cartels from 2006 to 2011, federal agents lost control of the firearms and essentially gave weapons to dangerous criminals.
Mr. Horowitz said the inspector general’s work is important to ensuring responsible, representative government.
“For the past 25 years, my office has demonstrated that effective and independent oversight saves taxpayers money and improves the department’s operations,” he said. “Actions that limit, condition or delay access to information have substantial consequences for our work and lead to incomplete, inaccurate or significantly delayed findings or recommendations.”