Congress has taken notable steps to strengthen the authority of inspectors general this month by confirming nominees to two long-vacant watchdog posts and passing legislation to protect investigators’ access to documents sought as part of federal probes.
Lawmakers drafted legislation to counteract a 2015 Justice Department legal opinion that forced federal inspectors-general to get permission from agencies they monitor for wiretaps and other investigative information — a requirement the watchdogs warned could curtail their ability to root out waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies.
The Inspector General Empowerment Act heads to President Obama’s desk for his signature after clearing the House on Thursday and the Senate on Saturday.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, called the bill’s passage “an important milestone for good government.”
“Passage of the IG Empowerment Act enhances the IGs’ ability to fight waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct, protects whistle-blowers who share information with IGs, increases government transparency, and bolsters the public’s confidence in the independence of IGs,” he said.
Prior disagreements over the level of access that inspectors general need became a point of contention in 2010, when several agencies refused to provide their inspectors general with independent access to agency information.
The problem was compounded in 2015, when the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the Inspector General Act of 1978 — which was written by Congress to create the government watchdogs to help maintain integrity within their agencies — did not give inspectors general the authority to override nondisclosure provisions in other laws, most notably in regard to grand jury, wiretap or fair credit information.
The law would ensure inspectors general have “timely access to all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other materials” that are related to their oversight of their respective agency’s programs and operations. Not included in the approved bill was authority for inspectors general to subpoena testimony from agency contractors or former agency employees.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who introduced the Senate version of the bill, said it will ensure inspectors general have the tools and access they need to safeguard taxpayers’ money and to root out misconduct.
“If we’ve learned one thing in the last year, it’s that government needs more transparency and oversight, not less. Inspectors general are our eyes and ears in government,” the Iowa Republican said. “They are on the front lines in the fight against fraud, waste and misconduct, but they can’t do their job if they can’t access the necessary government documents.”
The act also would require the Government Accountability Office to examine the problem of long-vacant inspector general positions — though there likely will be two fewer open posts to scrutinize.
The Senate on Saturday confirmed the nomination of Peggy E. Gustafson as the Department of Commerce inspector general and Jay Neal Lerner as Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation inspector general. Both positions still require a presidential commission to become official, but action by the Senate closes the loop on two long-open watchdog posts.
The approval of the two pending nominations will leave vacant nine of 36 inspector general positions that require presidential nomination, said Mr. Horowitz.
Vacancies currently span more than 2,800 days for the Department of Interior position to close to 200 days for the National Security Agency, according to the Project on Government Oversight.
The act requires that the GAO study the impact of long-term vacancies on inspector general positions, and to brief congressional committees on findings within nine months.
Mr. Horowitz praised the confirmations of Ms. Gustafson and Mr. Lerner and the inclusion of the study requirement in the bill.
“We’ve had some outstanding acting IGs,” he said. “But you are sitting there as acting and doing oversight work that comes with the position and yet you don’t quite have all the protection that the IG Act has built in for the president-nominated, Senate-confirmed positions.”
Mr. Lerner, who works as chief of staff for Justice’s inspector general, was nominated for the FDIC post in November 2014. The office has not had a permanent inspector general at the helm since 2013.
Fred Gibson, the acting inspector general of the FDIC, said the installment of a permanent head to oversee investigations is an important safeguard, not just for his office but for all inspector general offices.
“It ensures the independence of the office from the agency and that is critical to the role of an IG.” he said.
Ms. Gustafson, who has served as the inspector general of the Small Business Administration since 2009, was nominated by the president for the commerce position in April. The post became vacant in June 2015.
“With 12 bureaus and nearly 47,000 employees located in all 50 states and territories and more than 86 countries worldwide, the Department of Commerce is certainly more diverse than SBA in its critical programs that touch the lives of every American,” Ms. Gustafson said. “However, in the realm of the Office of Inspector General, the mission and focus is the same — to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in the administration of, and to prevent and detect fraud and abuse in, such programs and operations of the establishment.”
Ms. Gustafson’s move will leave an inspector general spot open in the SBA, which given the timing, will likely provide an opportunity for the incoming administration of Donald Trump to nominate someone for the position.