Inspectors General Win a Round in Fight Over Access
Justice Department re-issues legal interpretation, promises new directive.
A key agenda item for the government’s 72 inspectors general has long been widening their access to sensitive documents that some agencies withhold, for reasons ranging from national security to wiretapping records to the privacy of credit reports.
In the past week, the watchdogs got encouraging news from a previously resistant Justice Department, which issued a revised legal opinion and promised a new directive that should restore some of the access to sensitive documents that inspectors general once enjoyed.
Documents have been denied to IGs by the FBI and the Peace Corps, among others, and IGs have been working with Congress to enact new tools to ease their access.
On April 28, the department’s Office of Legal Counsel updated a controversial opinion justifying some withholdings issued last summer to give a little ground. It cited the threat from Congress in a December spending bill to withhold funds during fiscal 2016. It applies to Justice, the Commerce Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the Legal Services Corp.
That law reads: “No funds provided in this Act shall be used to deny an Inspector General funded under this Act timely access to any records, documents, or other materials available to the department or agency over which that Inspector General has responsibilities under the Inspector General Act of 1978, or to prevent or impede that Inspector General’s access to such records, documents, or other materials, under any provision of law, except a provision of law that expressly refers to the Inspector General and expressly limits the Inspector General’s right of access.”
This Monday, according to a New York Times story, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates has sent an internal memo to Justice staff promising a directive soon to clarify IG rights to documents.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice IG who also heads the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said in an email to Government Executive, "We appreciate Congress' support for IG access to all agency records and the legislation that resulted in the Justice Department's most recent decision, which applies to 6 IGs through the end of this fiscal year. The IG Empowerment Act, currently under consideration by Congress,” he added, “would ensure that all 72 IGs have access to the information they need on a permanent basis. The IG community continues to strongly support its passage."