- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency was suspected of having spent 10 years sexually harassing more than a dozen women. But when investigators uncovered the accusations and confronted the man, he retired without any disciplinary action.

“It was almost immediate. He said ‘I’m retiring today,’ and in a matter of hours the paperwork was cut and he retired,” Arthur Elkins Jr., inspector general for the EPA, told a House panel Tuesday. “He didn’t talk to us. He said ‘I’m retired,’ the agency passed the paperwork, and he was gone.”

It’s the kind of obstruction Mr. Elkins and two of his watchdog colleagues told Congress is happening more and more often, blocking investigations into accusations of wrongdoing, sexual abuse and whistleblower retaliation at government agencies.

Through a 1978 act of Congress, an inspector general office was established at every major government agency, with the task of investigating accusations of wrongdoing, tracking wasteful spending at departments, and reporting back to lawmakers.

But the three-inspector-general panel told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the agencies they’re trying to oversee are increasingly trying to block or delay their investigations.

Mr. Elkins said the inspector general investigation had found that other senior EPA executives likely knew about the sexual harassment, but did nothing for six months. The result, investigators said, was that the official my have harassed six more women between January and July 2014 before finally being put on leave.

It wasn’t until the following month, August, that EPA’s security management asked the inspector general to review the sexual harassment cases, Mr. Elkins said.

“The IG Act is clear: we need access in order to do our job,” Mr. Elkins said. “The IG should have unfettered access to information and to people. Period.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, said preventing inspector general investigations had “real consequences” for many people’s lives.

“With this delay of information, we put other women in harm’s way,” he said. “I think it’s very clear, on both sides, both Democrats and Republicans, that we think this is an important issue; that the intent of Congress is that you get all of the information and not some.”

Kathy Buller, the inspector general for the Peace Corps, said she is in a similar situation. In 2009, a Peace Corps volunteer was slain in Benin after reporting that she suspected a colleague, a citizen of the West African nation, of molesting young girls. Her family said her whistleblowing was betrayed, resulting in a retaliatory murder.

Congress passed a law — named the Kate Puzey Act in honor of the victim — that gave greater whistleblower protection and sexual assault prevention training at the agency.

Yet despite inspectors general being authorized by Congress to review sensitive and secret information, Ms. Buller said the Peace Corps’ top lawyer interpreted the Puzey Act to mean her office couldn’t look at personal records pertaining to sexual assaults and sexual harassment accusations.

“Its very existence sets a dangerous precedent whereby any agency can withhold information by deciding to interpret the law as overriding the IG act,” Ms. Buller said, adding she believes the lack of accountability is contributing to a culture at the Peace Corps that has “blamed victims [and] mismanaged cases.”

The committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, agreed there are too many ways for employees within an agency to avoid answering to the inspector general.

Mr. Chaffetz called the inspector general community the “first line of defense” in investigating wrongdoing by the government, and noted how important their reporting was to his committee.

“If the inspectors general can’t do their job, we can’t do our job,” he said.

In August, 47 inspectors general across the federal government sent a letter to Congress decrying the “serious limitations on access to records” that they say is impeding their work.

“Limiting access in this manner … 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 letter read.

Michael Horowitz, the inspector general for the Justice Department, said his office’s investigations have been seriously delayed. Attempting to investigate accusations of retaliation against whistleblowers at the FBI, Mr. Horowitz said that instead of unfettered access to agency records and communications, the FBI is meticulously reviewing what documents and parts of documents the inspector general can and can’t see.

The FBI, he said, “is constantly” undertaking the “costly and time consuming process of reviewing documents responsive to our request prior to producing them to us.”

The inspector general had always been able to review grand jury evidence and testimony, as well as electronic surveillance records, Mr. Horowitz said. But in 2010, the Justice Department said investigators could no longer have access to that information. Mr. Horowitz told lawmakers he was at a loss to explain why.

“The existing procedures at the department undermine our independence,” he said. “The status quo cannot continue indefinitely.”

In May, Mr. Horowitz asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to offer an opinion on the FBI’s legal concerns. Eight months later there has still been no decision by the Justice Department lawyers, nor any agreement between the FBI and the inspector general.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, Massachusetts Democrat, said he couldn’t understand how so many inspectors general, all at different agencies, were having such a difficult time gaining access to records and information.

“It mystifies me how this is happening all across the government at all these agencies at the same time,” he said.

Without the aid of the Inspectors General community, it becomes very difficult for Congress to know what’s happening at government departments and maintain watch over the executive branch, Mr. Lynch said.

“We’re really hamstrung here,” he said. “Oversight is really a constitutional responsibility of ours…If we can’t get that information, if we can’t have you as our emissaries to get that information to us, we cannot do that part of our constitutional responsibility.”

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