Following news that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s Office of Inspector General (OIG) plans to be more directly involved in investigating the Secret Service prostitution scandal, some have concluded that Members of Congress--several of whom did not trust the Secret Service to investigate itself--will now be satisfied that the inquiry will be independent and credible. But if recent history is any guide, the fact that the DHS OIG lacks permanent leadership may cause some lawmakers to question whether that office is fit to handle such a politically explosive investigation, especially if the inquiry drags on or does not turn up evidence of misconduct by high-level officials.
Case in point: a recent probe by the DOJ OIG into allegations that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were directed to allow suspected straw buyers to purchase weapons, including AK-47s, and then subsequently lost track of those weapons, elicited congressional concerns about the independence of the DOJ OIG—which at the time was led by an acting official as the DHS OIG is now.
In a March 2011 letter to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), the body that oversees IGs, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), requested that the ATF inquiry be handled by an outside OIG, citing the lack of a permanent IG at DOJ as one of the reasons:
In my experience, acting inspectors general tend to function as caretakers of the office. They are not necessarily equipped to take on an entrenched bureaucracy and challenge senior officials with the tough questions necessary to get to the bottom of a controversy as serious and far-reaching as this one. That would be especially true if the acting inspector general is seeking the nomination to fill the position on a long-term basis.
CIGIE responded that it did not have the authority to require that the DOJ OIG recuse itself and added that, even if it had that authority, it viewed the request as unwarranted because the DOJ OIG had “established itself as a model of independence, objectivity and above all, integrity in every aspect of its daily pursuits.”
Although we don't have any specific evidence that contradicts CIGIE's claims about the DOJ OIG, POGO agrees generally with Senator Grassley that the independence and credibility of an OIG can become diminished when that office is led by a temporary official, rather than a permanent one. The reasons for that are not a reflection on the integrity or competence of particular acting officials, but are instead structural.
Acting IGs are, by nature, temporary. When an IG serving in an acting capacity is interested in becoming a permanent IG, which many are, that person requires either a nomination by the President or an appointment by the agency head, depending on the OIG. Regardless of the integrity of that official, such a structure creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest—because the employment prospects of that official depend on the goodwill of the administration they are investigating.
It should be noted that in the case of the DOJ OIG, a nominee other than the Acting IG was announced after the Grassley letter, but while the ATF investigation was still underway. That nominee, Michael Horowitz, has now been confirmed. And in the case of the DHS OIG, a nominee other than the Acting IG is currently pending, but her vote has been delayed. The existence of a nominee significantly reduces the potential for a conflict, although it is still possible that an Acting IG could be nominated for an IG position at a different agency.
Independence is one of the most important qualities of an IG. And even the appearance of a conflict, regardless of fact, can have serious impact. For example, whistleblowers are far less likely to come forward when they lack confidence that the IG is independent. And third parties are far less likely to trust that an OIG has followed every lead when that OIG reports that they did not find misconduct, especially involving politically explosive investigations requested by Congress.
Furthermore, permanent IGs at large agencies, like DHS and DOJ, which require a nomination by the President with Senate confirmation, go through a rigorous vetting process. That process also helps to instill confidence among stakeholders, including Members of Congress, that the official charged with leading the office is indeed truly independent and credible.
Another factor that could specifically complicate the Secret Service inquiry is that the DHS OIG is under investigation by DOJ and the FBI, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). As CIR recently reported, a grand jury had been convened to hear testimony involving allegations that some DHS OIG agents may have fabricated reports in order to show progress that had been made on their investigations. An email produced by CIR showed that DHS OIG’s Acting IG placed the office’s top investigator on administrative leave back in March pending the outcome of the investigation.
As for any possible congressional concerns about the DHS OIG investigation, an aide to Senator Grassley told CBS that his office was still in the process of developing a position. “It's unclear at this point whether the investigation will be broad enough, and they are seeking more answers from the Inspector General on the scope of the investigation before determining whether this investigation is adequate,” CBS reported.
POGO is continuing to track vacancies across the IG system on a webpage we created called "Where Are All the Watchdogs?" And POGO Investigator Jake Wiens will be testifying before the House Oversight Committee next week on the implications of IG vacancies.