Kathryn Watson, DCNF
A bipartisan bill protecting federal watchdogs’ abilities to access official documents required to hold their agencies accountable is heading to President Barack Obama’s desk, after overcoming nearly two years of road blocks in Congress.
The U.S. Senate passed the Inspector General (IG) Empowerment Act Saturday by unanimous consent as one of its final acts of 2016, forcing agencies to hand over all records requested by their Inspectors General.
The bill overturns a July 2015 memo from the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which claimed the FBI could withhold certain wiretapping, surveillance and credit records from the DOJ IG.
“If we’ve learned one thing in the last year, it’s that government needs more transparency and oversight, not less,” said Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of the bill’s original cosponsors, in a statement. “Inspectors general are our eyes and ears in government. 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 IG Act of 1978, which established IGs as safeguards against waste, fraud and abuse, required that IGs have access to “all” records, so long as no other laws prohibit disclosure. But the FBI began withholding some documents from DOJ IG Michael Horowitz in 2010, followed by similar refusals from officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Peace Corps and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Horowitz is also the chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). He and 46 other IGs wrote to Congress in August 2014, asking for reforms. Grassley introduced his bill in February 2015.
But Nevada Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain objected to the bill, holding it up until December. (RELATED: Reid Blocks Bill Giving Federal Watchdogs More Muscle)
Officials at the FBI and DEA eventually gave Horowitz the access he needed, but only after Congress said the DOJ could use no department funds to block the IG in the DOJ’s 2016 appropriations bill and the DEA gained a new acting administrator, Chuck Rosenberg, in March 2015.
The EPA IG spokeswoman Jennifer Kaplan told The Daily Caller News Foundation her office’s access has improved since the letter to Congress in 2014, but declined to give further details.
Spokesman Kate Pote said the Peace Corps IG has no outstanding document requests but is hopeful agency officials will be forthcoming with records needed for sexual assault investigations when the bill becomes law.
Access shouldn’t depend on who sits in the corner office, Horowitz told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing last month on the DEA’s use of confidential sources.
“Passage of the IG Empowerment Act enhances the IGs’ ability to fight waste, fraud, abuse and misconduct, protects whistleblowers who share information with IGs, increases government transparency, and bolsters the public’s confidence in the independence of IGs,” Horowitz said in a statement. “For these reasons, the act is an important milestone for good government.”
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