Federal agencies stiff-arm GAO on info

The investigative arm of Congress has been denied information repeatedly by various government agencies, indefinitely delaying lawmaker-requested probes, according to a letter obtained by The Hill.

The State Department, for example, initially balked at giving the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a list of sex offenders. Senate Finance Committee leaders asked GAO for a study on how many passport holders have not paid their federal taxes or are registered sex offenders.

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In a letter to Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent this fall, acting GAO head Gene Dodaro said there had been “protracted delays” in obtaining this information.

It states, “Over the past year we have made numerous attempts to negotiate access to this data … the department still has not complied with our access requests.”

Dodaro told Grassley the next step is “elevating this matter to the highest levels in the State Department.”

The State Department did not comment for this article, though GAO said Tuesday the matter has since been resolved.

GAO has said these types of delays are common from the State Department, although interactions with the department “have generally improved.”

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.

Dodaro says the Department of Justice (DoJ) has also limited GAO’s access, “resulting in delays and occasional denials of GAO access to information.”

“DoJ’s positions have had a particularly broad impact on our access to information at agencies with functions that are part of the intelligence community,” according to the letter.

Grassley also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hold a DoJ oversight hearing on Wednesday.

Intelligence agencies have refused to provide the GAO with certain information by citing a 1988 opinion issued by DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel that some have interpreted as granting Congress, not the GAO, an intelligence clearance.

GAO calls this argument “legally unfounded.”

In one instance, the FBI denied the GAO information on vacancies in the agency’s Counterterrorism Division, saying that the information was part of the national intelligence budget and was therefore not privy to the GAO.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has also continually thwarted GAO requests, specifically in dealing with its access to plans for potential future military operations, the letter charges. Moreover, GAO studies looking at DoD’s interagency coordination for homeland defense and how DoD is including contractor support into its operational planning process have been delayed for months.

And more recently, GAO was prevented from completing a study on the Army’s realignment when the DoD didn’t give the agency access to how many Army Brigade Combat Teams should be stationed in Europe.

DoD and DoJ did not comment for this article.

The GAO did emphasize that most government agencies are responsive to its information requests.

Chuck Young, a spokesman for the GAO, told The Hill, “The vast majority of the time we receive very good access from nearly all agencies. But [Grassley] had asked us to outline sticking points at that time.”

Walker said that delays in getting information from agencies were common in his 10-year GAO tenure and an impediment to getting the most accurate and timely reports back to Congress. But he added that in almost every situation, a resolution was reached. The exception to that rule triggered Walker to file the GAO suit against Cheney. 

“There were a number of cases where we encountered delays, sometimes significant delays,” said Walker.

Grassley, who has infuriated Democrats and Republican administrations with his aggressive oversight activities, told The Hill,

“When the executive branch refuses to provide information to the GAO, a nonpartisan agency of Congress, then the executive branch is violating the checks and balances that are so important to our system of government. It’s a matter of holding government accountable.”

Some government agencies cite statutes, which spell out which entities have a right to the information they possess. Since the GAO is not explicitly granted that authorization, the agencies claim they are not bound by law to release such information, with some contending that it would be illegal to do so, Dodaro notes.

But the agencies that make this argument are incorrect, Dodaro writes, because there is no such legal justification for stifling the investigative work the GAO is requested to do on behalf of Congress

Many leading Democrats and Republicans in both chambers agree. And while not aware of all of the specific cases in which the GAO has not been granted access, lawmakers said the GAO should use all the tools in its enforcement arsenal.

“The GAO should use its subpoena power and compel the information,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

“They’re an agency of the Congress. We rely on them to give us the best information possible. It’s inexcusable that they should be prevented from getting the information that they and we need from anybody in the executive branch, whoever is in charge.”

Even though President Barack Obama has vowed that the U.S. government will become more transparent, some officials interviewed for this article say that his administration has not given much more information to GAO than George W. Bush’s did

A bill put forward by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would grant GAO greater access.

While Towns said that there have only been “a couple occasions” in which the agencies have delayed GAO investigations and that he hasn’t had to subpoena any department yet, he also said that in his role as chairman he “doesn’t have a problem subpoenaing agencies if they don’t give us what we want, because we’re talking about reform, and in order to reform things you have to have the information.”

A similar measure put forward by Waxman passed the House last year. But it stalled in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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