Agency watchdogs tell lawmakers that officials stonewalled probes

Lauren Schneiderman

Forty-seven independent inspectors general who oversee the Obama administration are accusing officials of blocking their access to government documents, warning of “potentially serious challenges” to their authority.

"Refusing, restricting, or delaying an Inspector General’s access to documents leads to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings or recommendations, which in turn may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency’s performance," the inspectors general wrote in a letter to the House and Senate Oversight Committee chairmen and ranking members.

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The letter charges that they were denied documents on at least three separate occasions.

In one instance, the Peace Corps allegedly refused to provide access to documents for an investigation into whether the agency was properly addressing sexual abuse cases. 

The inspectors general also accuse the Department of Justice of withholding FBI records that had been previously produced to investigators, and the Environmental Protection Agency of withholding documents related to an examination of the Chemical Safety Board.

The inspectors general say the disputes are "not unique" and that other outside investigators had "faced similar obstacles to their work."

"Even when we are ultimately able to resolve these issues with senior agency leadership, the process is often lengthy, delays our work, and diverts time and attention from substantive oversight activities," the inspectors general wrote.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, seized on the letter to slam the Obama administration.

"This is an Administration that pledged to be the most transparent in history," Grassley said in a statement. "Yet, these non-partisan, independent agency watchdogs say they are getting stonewalled. How are the watchdogs supposed to be able to do their jobs without agency cooperation?"

Grassley said lawmakers need to respond to the letter's plea for help, calling for possible legislative action to bolster the investigators.

"Inspectors general exist to improve agencies and get the most bang for every tax dollar," he said.

The Peace Corps said the dispute with its inspector general was rooted in efforts to balance the confidentiality and privacy of volunteers who are victims of sexual assault. 

The agency's inspector general reached an agreement earlier this year that provides the IG's office with oversight documents while protecting the personally identifying information and graphic details of sexual assaults.

"The Peace Corps respects and values the important role of the Inspector General, which is why we worked hard to reach an agreement so that our Inspector General receives the information necessary to carry out its obligations under the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011," a Peace Corps spokeswoman said in a statement. 

"We are committed to working with the Inspector General to ensure rigorous oversight while protecting the confidentiality and privacy of volunteers who are sexually assaulted," she added.

On Monday, Vice President Biden touted inspector generals as a crucial tool to fight corruption in a speech to African heads of state in Washington.

“There is also a need to have in every government agency what we in the United States call, and it could be different in every country, we call it an inspector general,” said Biden. 

“Someone who is able to roam through every department, like here in the United States, the Defense Department, the IRS, the Treasury Department writ large, the Department of Interior, to be able to look at the books, to be able to look at everything that's transpired with independent eyes. People who cannot be fired,” he continued. 

Biden encouraged African leaders to use similar investigators to prevent bribery and other wrongdoing.

“Corruption, as I said, is not unique to Africa, but it’s a cancer. It’s a cancer in Africa as well as around the world,” Biden said. “Widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of its people and a direct threat to each of your nations’ stability, all nations’ stability.” 

This story was updated at 6:55 p.m.