GAO still encounters delays in access to federal agencies

Numerous government agencies are denying the investigative arm of Congress access to information, despite repeated attempts by officials and lawmakers to remedy the situation, according to a letter sent this week and obtained by The Hill.

Officials with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) say that access within executive-branch agencies has improved somewhat since The Hill first wrote about the issue seven months ago.

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But despite the modest improvements, the GAO continues to encounter scores of delays and denials in trying to obtain information, according to a letter acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro sent to senators on Tuesday.

“There are areas where GAO continues to encounter access issues,” Dodaro said in the letter to Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “Some of these are agency-specific, stemming from longstanding processes and procedures that impede our access; others reflect misinterpretations of GAO’s authorities.”

The departments of Justice (DoJ), Defense (DoD), Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have all stymied the GAO’s access to information, according to the letter.

Grassley called on the executive branch to live up to its promises of transparency and accountability and do everything it can to ensure that the GAO has appropriate access to information it needs to complete lawmaker-requested studies.

“Despite attempts by the GAO to reach agreement with several federal agencies on accessing information, it continues to face roadblocks,” Grassley said. “The losers here are the American people, because the executive branch is defying Congress and interfering in its constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight on their behalf, not to mention this flies in the face of transparency and accountability for taxpayer dollars.”

For example, the GAO’s study on Medicare and Medicaid federal benefits fraud has been indefinitely delayed because HHS has not turned over information on the National Directory of New Hires.

Officials with HHS did not return a request for comment, but Dodaro writes that the agency says it is not required to give GAO the information and attempted to block the GAO’s access to the data on a state level when the office tried to retrieve it that way. 

In another instance, the GAO was delayed for six months while waiting for the DHS to deliver a 2009 Homeland Security Institute report on the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The GAO says that it has repeatedly faced difficulty in getting timely information on matters that should be readily available.

The DHS likewise did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite having an overall good track record with getting material from DoD, the GAO has had difficulty obtaining information from the department when it pertains to potential future military operations. A DoD spokesman did not return a request for comment on Wednesday, but last month, when contacted about this issue, said DoD “strives to provide the information requested in a timely manner.”

In the face of these delays, Dodaro emphasized the GAO’s access has improved and several government agencies have recently engaged in high-level discussions that have left the GAO optimistic.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed a new directive that revises the manner in which DHS deals with GAO requests. Dodaro said in his letter that he was optimistic the GAO’s access would improve very soon. High-level discussions over the past six months have resulted in broader access for GAO with DoD, Dodaro wrote.

Officials with the DoJ and GAO also agreed last week to establish a high-level working group with the GAO to further discuss the DoJ’s protocols for working with it. The GAO has experienced long delays in receiving information from DoJ when it has to work with liaisons instead of getting direct access to the officials and information it needs, as is typically the case with other agencies. 

The GAO also remains hopeful the Government Accountability Improvement Act will remedy the situation. The measure — sponsored by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) — passed the House earlier this year and would resolve many of the GAO’s access issues with these government agencies, Dodaro writes.

“We are working with the relevant congressional committees to address these various issues,” said GAO spokesman Chuck Young. “We’re hopeful we can come to some resolution that ensures we are able to get the access we need to successfully complete our work.”

There has always been friction between GAO and government agencies, but sources say the tension is intensifying and could lead to legal clashes between the legislative and executive branches.

During the George W. Bush administration, then-GAO head David Walker sued to gain access to information from Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. GAO lost its legal challenge.