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ICYMI: Big News for Inspectors General (But Where’s the VA IG?)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the world of Inspectors General.

There have been several important developments since the Project On Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian testified at a June 3 hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) on IG vacancies and threats to IG independence.

First, Todd Zinser stepped down from his post as IG of the Commerce Department. POGO and other groups had called for his removal after a bipartisan probe by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology revealed that Zinser and his office had a history of retaliating against whistleblowers. President Obama has now designated David Smith, an Assistant IG, to head the office in an acting capacity until a permanent replacement can be found.

Meanwhile, at the Interior Department, the President has now nominated Mary Kendall, who has headed the IG’s office as an acting official for more than six years, to take on that role in a permanent capacity. POGO previously raised concerns about Kendall’s long-standing tenure as Acting IG, citing an investigation by the majority staff of the House Natural Resources Committee that found she was too congenial with the Department’s political appointees. While this vacancy has languished for far too long, we urge Congress to take a close look at Kendall’s record before confirming her nomination.

As of today, there are now eight vacancies at presidentially appointed IG positions across the federal government, one vacancy at an agency-appointed position, and four nominees awaiting confirmation by the Senate. One of those nominations is moving along in the process, however. HSGAC is holding a confirmation hearing today to consider the nomination of Carol Ochoa to serve as IG of the General Services Administration, which has gone more than a year without a permanent watchdog. We’ll continue updating our IG vacancy tracker with any further developments.

But that’s not all. In her oral testimony, Brian warned about a “move to shift the responsibility of overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction spending from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko over to the DoD [Department of Defense] IG.” This potential move is particularly concerning because, unlike the SIGAR, the DoD’s watchdog has a tendency to label its reports “For Official Use Only” and to withhold them from public release unless the reports are specifically requested through the Freedom of Information Act.

We were therefore pleased to learn that HSGAC Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) has introduced an amendment (SA 1803) to the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to ensure that the SIGAR will continue serving as the lead IG overseeing U.S. reconstruction spending in Afghanistan. With about $15 billion in the pipeline remaining to be spent on reconstruction, U.S. taxpayers deserve a watchdog that isn’t afraid to bark when those funds are wasted or abused.

For those who missed this month’s HSGAC hearing, Brian testified that IG independence and effectiveness are often threatened by the “long-standing vacancies that have languished at IG offices throughout the federal government.” She recognized that some IG offices continue to work effectively under acting leadership, and that the opening of an IG vacancy can occur for a legitimate reason—such as removing a permanent IG who has retaliated against whistleblowers. Nonetheless, Brian said POGO has been “deeply troubled to find that many senior IG officials are allegedly currying favor with the very agency leaders they’re supposed to oversee, and taking other inappropriate actions that would cause any reasonable person to question the IG’s independence.”

Committee members and other witnesses echoed POGO’s concerns.

Acting IGs “are not truly independent, as they can be removed by the agency at any time; they are only temporary and do not drive office policy; and they are at greater risk of compromising their work to appease the agency or the president,” Chairman Johnson said in his opening remarks. Department of Justice IG Michael Horowitz—who also heads the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE)—told the Committee that a “sustained absence of permanent leadership is not healthy for any office, particularly one entrusted with the important and challenging mission of an IG.”

The hearing largely focused on the acting IG at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which has now gone more than 530 days without a permanent watchdog or a nominee from the White House. Under the acting leadership of Richard Griffin, the IG’s office has been accused of undermining a whistleblower’s claims about veteran deaths and phony wait lists, and withholding its investigative findings from the public and even from Congress. “[O]f all the vacant IG positions, this one literally has lives riding on it,” Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) remarked. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to limit long-standing IG vacancies, called the vacancy at the VA IG’s office “dumbfounding.” Finding a permanent VA watchdog “is something that I would think every American—Democrat, Republican, Independent—would care about,” she said.

POGO also highlighted recent IG vacancies at the State and Defense Departments. The State Department lacked a permanent watchdog for Hillary Clinton’s entire four-year tenure as Secretary of State (POGO has reported that the IG’s office “had ample opportunity to spotlight the problems with Clinton’s emails” before the scandal broke in the press, and that several whistleblowers believed the IG’s office was “captured by management” while headed by then-Acting IG Harold Geisel.) The IG’s office at the Pentagon, under the acting leadership of Lynne Halbrooks, sat on a draft report finding that former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed classified information to the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty, at a time when Halbrooks was vying for the job of permanent IG. In a separate matter, CIGIE and the Office of Special Counsel are now investigating allegations that the DoD IG’s office, under Halbrooks’ watch, may have improperly destroyed exculpatory documents during a leak investigation of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, according to reports by McClatchy.

Although these IG offices are now headed by permanent watchdogs, it has taken an average of 613 days to fill vacancies at presidentially appointed IG positions during the Obama Administration, Brian testified. Unfortunately, the White House did not send a representative to explain the Administration’s position on IG vacancies. “The committee invited both the current and former director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, and the White House has blocked both from testifying here today,” Chairman Johnson said at the hearing.

So what can be done to strengthen IG independence and effectiveness?

Earlier this year, all 16 members of HSGAC signed a letter calling on President Obama and his agency heads to fill the remaining vacancies. “Bipartisan oversight, as exemplified by that letter and [this] hearing, sends a strong message that Congress wants its watchdogs to be permanent and independent,” Brian told the Committee.

In addition, HSGAC has approved bipartisan legislation—the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015 (S. 579)—that would, among other things, require more public disclosure of reports produced by IG offices. In the meantime, the Justice IG’s office has announced it will start providing the public with more information on findings of misconduct by senior officials— tracking an amendment introduced by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) to the House’s version of the Inspector General Empowerment Act. Given that Justice IG Horowitz also serves as the Chair of CIGIE, we hope his move inspires other IG offices to follow suit.

POGO has offered other recommendations to ensure that both acting and permanent IG watchdogs do not become subservient lapdogs. Brian told the Committee that the semiannual reporting requirements of the Inspector General Act cause many IG offices “to spend a significant amount of time chasing ‘small-window’ projects.” In many cases, she said, “if an IG’s office can’t monetize an issue, the office will often turn a blind eye to it, turn against the whistleblowers who brought it to them, or turn it into a criminal case to boost the office’s referral metrics.” POGO is exploring how to revamp these requirements to ensure that IG reports “are more meaningful and reflective of the information that Congress and agencies actually need.”

In the meantime, we urge the President and his agency heads to fill the remaining IG vacancies—in particular at the VA, which is in dire need of a permanent, Senate-confirmed watchdog.

Watch the HSGAC hearing in its entirety on senate.gov.