IGs Cite ‘Serious Challenges’ Regarding Political Retaliation and Independence
Lawmakers weigh the need for new laws in the wake of former President Trump’s unprecedented attacks on federal watchdogs.
Inspectors general and other oversight experts on Tuesday stressed the need for new laws to protect IGs from political retaliation and ensure their independence.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s panel on government operations held a hearing to examine challenges the federal watchdogs face in their efforts to document waste, fraud and abuse after former President Trump’s high-profile and controversial IG removals––such as occurred at the State Department, Intelligence Community and Defense Department––and his administration’s resistance to oversight bodies. While many presidents have had contentious relationships with IGs, many of Trump’s actions towards the watchdogs were unprecedented.
“The assault on the IG community in the past few years highlights the urgent need to further amend the statute to further empower inspectors general to do the job that Congress intended for them to do and to further protect inspectors general from reprisals,” Clark Ervin, former IG for the Homeland Security and State departments, testified.
Despite the enactment of the 2016 Inspector General Empowerment Act and other recent reforms, “serious challenges remain,” said Kathy Buller, Peace Corps IG and executive chair for the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency’s legislation committee. She and Allison Lerner, National Science Foundation IG and CIGIE chair, testified about the council’s legislative priorities for the 117th Congress. These include: giving IGs testimonial subpoena authority, requiring notification to Congress no later than 30 days before an IG is removed or transferred and only allow senior IG officials to serve as acting IGs.
Last year, Trump tapped political appointees at the Transportation and State departments to serve as acting IGs while in their appointed roles, which raised concerns about conflicts of interest.
When asked by Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., if she or any member of CIGIE expressed opposition to any Trump officials about the “dual hat” situations, Lerner said, “yes,” but declined to provide details about the positions or individuals in question. She added that she and Michael Horowitz, Justice Department IG and then-CIGIE chair, met with the acting inspector general in one case to ensure the person understood their responsibilities in the roles.
Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., raised the concern that testimonial subpoena authority could be abused. Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, pointed out that currently the Defense IG and Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an oversight body comprised of IGs that was established by the CARES Act, have this authority and “from what we’ve seen so far that authority has not been abused.”
Hempowicz and Ervin––who supported many of CIGIE’s legislative priorities––also testified about the need for encouraging and possibly creating incentives for presidents to nominate individuals for IG vacancies.
There are currently 15 IG vacancies, some of which date back to the Obama administration. Experts told Government Executive last month they hoped President Biden would nominate individuals to fill these positions as soon as possible as they are critical to ensuring ethical and effective operations, especially as agencies are distributing billions of dollars in pandemic relief.
Hearing witnesses discussed how acting IGs may be perceived as not being as independent as permanent ones, and how those perceptions may hinder the oversight offices’ long-term planning efforts. However, Buller said “inspectors general and their staff are working diligently to provide accountability and ensure integrity of government processes,” despite the vacancies.
On Friday, Biden announced his intent to nominate Robin Ashton, who has spent 35 years in public service, most recently as principal deputy IG for the Intelligence Community IG office, to serve as CIA IG. That was his first announcement about an IG position. Trump had previously made nominations for several of the vacancies, but Congress never acted on them and they expired when the new Congress began in January.
Besides protections for IGs, lawmakers and witnesses discussed potential reforms to the structure of CIGIE to ensure better accountability in the oversight community.
Citing the council’s annual report for fiscal 2020, Hempowicz noted that most of the allegations of wrongdoing against IGs that CIGIE received involved abuse of power. “What gets reported back to Congress is that the majority of those investigations were closed either because they didn’t meet the investigative threshold standard … or because the allegations themselves didn’t provide enough information,” she said.
Therefore, she said, there should be a more clearly defined standard for the council taking up investigations, such as allegations of abuse of power by an IG, and the council should be required to report to Congress why it didn't pursue an investigation.
Many of the Republicans on the subcommittee, such as Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., subcommittee ranking member, focused their questioning on Mia Forgy, deputy IG for the Election Assistance Commission, about the office’s failure to investigate a $35 million contract the California Secretary of State’s office awarded to a consulting firm with ties to the Biden campaign to do outreach about changes to voting due to the pandemic.
Ahead of the hearing, on Monday evening, top Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced legislation to create independence for IGs and shield them from political retaliation. It contains provisions from bills previously introduced during the 116th Congress as well as many of the suggestions discussed during the hearing.
“This comprehensive bill would ensure that inspectors general can perform their jobs free from political retaliation and that they have the tools needed to perform thorough investigations,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, in a statement. “Inspectors General are needed now more than ever to provide accountability for the over $5 trillion spent by the government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”