Myopic IG Demand for Total Access Often Misses Mark
Pursuit of Trivial Information Masks IG Lack of Oversight on Serious Matters
Washington, DC — A scripted morality play unfolding today before a Congressional hearing concerning the right of Inspectors General to immediate access to all government records will do little to improve meaningful oversight, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Likely missing from the expected fulmination will be a dispassionate examination of whether Inspectors General (IGs) are functioning well and effectively benefitting the taxpayer.
Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hear from IGs who contend some of their information requests have been impeded, thus hampering important investigations. One of the key examples offered is the hesitancy of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) to turn over communications between top CSB officials and outside lawyers retained to represent the agency in personnel-related litigation demanded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) IG.
The CSB retained a former top White House ethics lawyer who opined that turning over the documents on matters still in litigation would be a complete and irrevocable waiver of attorney-client privilege, meaning the other side in the litigation could obtain the CSB’s legal strategy and other surrendered records. Nonetheless, the EPA IG insisted it had the right to see the records and issued a “Seven Day Letter” calling the delay a “particularly serious or flagrant” abuse. Why this was a “flagrant” abuse and not a reasonable concern remains unclear. In any event, the IG ultimately got the requested records but –
- The records revealed little of value as the underlying personnel cases appear to be spurious whistleblower claims of no substance;
- The IG asked a top CSB official to wear a wire to record conversations with officials from the Office of Special Counsel, a completely independent agency responsible for whistleblower protection and which is completely outside the EPA IG’s jurisdiction; and
- The IG has sat on a February CSB request for an investigation into a recent board member who became a consultant to Chevron and then lobbied the CSB on its report on a massive Chevron refinery explosion in apparent violation of federal criminal “revolving door” laws.
“Why in the world would the EPA Inspector General try to eavesdrop on the Office of Special Counsel?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this information had already been given to the House committee but has not been pursued. “This has all the earmarks of a misguided ‘gotcha’ probe into trivial matters while ignoring apparent criminal violations.”
In early August, 46 IGs sent a letter to selected Congressional representatives requesting a “strong, generally applicable reaffirmation” that “an Inspector General is entitled to timely and unimpeded access to all records available”[Emphasis in original]. A week later, a bipartisan congressional letter to the White House laid out a more nuanced view:
“In most cases, IG access to requested materials should be beyond question. When conflict arises between an agency and an Inspector General, agencies should engage quickly and proactively with the affected Inspector General to try to resolve any possible conflicts in a manner that allows the Inspector General to do his or her work.” [Emphasis added]
“The broad powers granted to IGs are subject to abuse. Congressional oversight committees should ask tough questions about precisely how taxpayers benefit from abusive fishing expeditions,” Ruch added, noting that PEER has represented several IG agents as well as employees targeted by heavy-handed IG investigations, featuring tactics such as bogus criminal referrals, threats to polygraph and other “thuggish” behavior. “We need to keep a closer eye on our watchdogs.”