New Leader of Federal IGs Stresses Value of Independence

Michael Horowitz testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Michael Horowitz testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Freshly installed as chairman of the inspectors general council, Michael Horowitz confirmed quickly what his peers value most: their independence.

The 72 members of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency share a desire to avoid being doormats for their agency chiefs, but they also think independently of one another, Horowitz told Government Executive from his office at the Justice Department, where by day he is that agency’s top watchdog.

“The council traditionally operates by consensus, so one of the challenges is to build consensus but not be paralyzed,” Horowitz said.  “It will require a lot of work and interaction, since all of us operate under the principle of independence.”

Created by a 2008 law as a merger of two earlier councils, CIGIE’s mission is to address integrity, economy, and effectiveness issues that transcend individual government agencies, while enhancing the professionalism of IG office employees in combatting waste, fraud and abuse. But Horowitz noted that many in government are unfamiliar with the council, and he is often called upon to explain its purpose to rank-and-file federal employees and even lawmakers.

Since being elected by fellow inspectors general in December (he succeeded Agriculture Department IG Phyllis Fong), Horowitz has been balancing travel on behalf of his job for the Justice Department and get-acquainted sessions with IGs. He recently visited the council’s Glynco, Georgia-based law enforcement training facility, the Inspector General Criminal Investigator Academy. More than half of the council’s funding goes to “training agents, auditors, leaders, evaluators and inspectors,” Horowitz said.

Getting familiar with the council chairman’s role “has taken a pretty good chunk of time,” acknowledged Horowitz, who previously worked at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “I hope it gets easier as I learn more of the intricacies,” he said.  

The council members prepare reports on IG prosecutions and auditing standards, examine cross-agency issues, conduct monthly meetings, perform ethics investigations, run a two-day conference in May and hold an annual awards ceremony in the autumn.

Among his priorities, Horowitz said, is renewing a push that died at the end of the last Congress to enact some provisions of the bipartisan Inspector General Empowerment Act sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; and Mark Meadows, R-N.C. 

CIGIE would like to see IGs “exempted from some [privacy-based] requirements, to be able to more efficiently look at duplicate payments and fraud across the government,” Horowitz said. For example, his team audited a Justice Department grant recipient and found misuse of funds. “We would like to determine whether [the recipient] got other government grants and look for disability fraud or improper payments,” Horowitz said. But the 1988 Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act restricts the extent to which watchdogs can access individuals’ data.

“The process of sharing data with other agencies can be cumbersome, and we have to go through the agency leaders, which is inconsistent with our independence,” Horowitz said.

Clashing With Agencies

Before his election to head CIGIE, Horowitz last August joined with 46 other IGs to sign a letter accusing several federal agencies of refusing to comply with document and interview requests specifically authorized under the 1978 Inspector General Act. At a dramatic September 2014 hearing about alleged “stonewalling,” Horowitz testified alongside IGs from the Peace Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency.

 (The stonewalling issue arose again on Jan. 29, when the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction announced that his final quarterly report for fiscal 2014 would not publish much data on how $65 billion was spent on the Afghan national army because U.S. commanders determined the information must remain classified.)

“This is a very important issue for IG community,” Horowitz said. “If we’re going to be truly independent, we need access to all records from our own agency files. Timely access is most important, so it’s not that we’re ultimately denied, it’s that it takes a long time,” he added. “If there are delays, waste, fraud and abuse activity keeps going, and no one should want to see that happen.”

Resistance to giving IGs greater access comes from a contested reading of the law by the FBI, which since 2010 has argued that it cannot share information from National Security Letters it uses in terrorism and leak investigations. Information related to grand juries, wiretaps and the Fair Credit Reporting Act is also protected, according to Horowitz. Much of the information IGs seek is already shared with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and National Security Division, he noted.

Some agencies, such as the Peace Corps, argue that other laws—the 2011 Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which protects the privacy of whistleblowers and sexual assault victimstrump the IG’s demands. “They can throw up legal roadblocks and lawyer objections,” Horowitz said, noting that a final decision on access to information is pending with Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. “A resolution in our favor is very important due to the uncertainty.”

The IG empowerment bill would also clarify some of CIGIE’s authorities and resources, while granting more “testimonial subpoena” power against contractors and former federal employees. Some lawmakers say such power is needed during investigations to apply pressure to reluctant witnesses.

“We’re generally supportive of testimonial subpoena power—it was on past priority lists but not the most recent,” said Horowitz, who is scheduled to testify Feb. 3 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “But it’s one of the first issues we’ll take up and work out our position on.”

Justice Department prosecutors have expressed concern that IG subpoenas could harm ongoing criminal investigations. “If I issue a subpoena to someone who refuses to testify unless compelled, that could impact criminal cases, and also create competing testimony,” Horowitz said. “For me, the issue is that IGs should not be compelling testimony on a potentially criminal matter without conferring with the prosecutor.” The bill from the past Congress included a mechanism to allow such notification, he said.

Accelerating Ethics Probes

Equally important to Horowitz and some lawmakers is streamlining the IG council’s ethics process. Recent probes of since-departed watchdogs at the National Archives and Records Administration (Paul Brachfeld) and the Homeland Security Department (Charles Edwards) dragged on, preventing the IGs involved from carrying out their duties.

 “There are integrity committee issues, actual or perceived, and it’s very important for the IG community to be seen as able to investigate allegations—it’s an accountability challenge,” Horowitz said.  

In accordance with the 1978 IG Act, the integrity committee is made up of four IGs and representatives from the Office of Special Counsel and the Office of Government Ethics. But it is chaired by the FBI, which keeps the records. “Their final report doesn’t come to me as chairman but to the agency head or the White House deputy director for management,” Horowitz noted. Among his first actions was to meet with FBI officials to explore possible nonstatutory changes to accelerate the process.

IGs in recent years have become more visible in Washington policy, politics and management. In December, an IG for the first time was named for an overseas contingency operation: Defense Department inspector general Jon Rymer.

But some critics blast the watchdogs for reporting late on waste or fraud rather than heading it off in advance. Horowitz said he sees a “need to be mindful in making recommendations strategically about future issues in preventing waste and fraud. It’s very important to detect and prevent it at an early stage, not just find it at the back end.”

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