Watchdogs: Agencies obstructing probes

Three federal watchdogs told lawmakers Wednesday that the agencies they oversee have repeatedly blocked access to information, impending their investigations.

Inspectors general for the Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Peace Corps each detailed their fights, accusing the agencies of ignoring their authority.

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House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaThe Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles Senate throws hundreds of Trump nominees into limbo MORE (R-Calif.) called the hearing before his panel after 47 IGs wrote a letter to Congress in August saying that they had struggled with access in their investigations.

“When agencies withhold information and their records from these watchdogs, it impedes their ability to conduct their work thoroughly, independently and most of all timely,” Issa said.

The Inspector General Act, Issa said, gives nearly unfettered access to IGs.

DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz told lawmakers the FBI has, since 2010, refused to give his office some grand jury and wiretap documentation.

“As a result, a number of our reviews have been significantly impeded,” Horowitz said.

Department leaders have instructed their staff to comply with some of the requests, but Horowitz said that raised other concerns.

“Requiring the inspector general to obtain permission from department leadership seriously compromises our independence,” he said.

The EPA inspector general has faced problems both at that agency and with the Chemical Safety Board, which it also oversees, said IG Arthur Elkins.

The EPA has refused to turn over some intelligence information, while the chemical board has asserted attorney-client privilege for certain communications.

“No courts, no congressional committees and no opinions from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel have given any cause for concern that the requirement for access to all information means anything other than ‘all,’ ” Elkins said.

A 2011 law allows Peace Corps employees to anonymously report sexual assaults and get access to treatment and help.

Kathy Buller, the Peace Corps IG, told lawmakers that the agency’s legal counsel has asserted that those reports are so confidential even the watchdog cannot access them.

Buller negotiated for limited access to the documents.

“Although the agreement improves our access, I am concerned about my office having to enter into an agreement to get information we are entitled to by law and that we need to do our jobs,” she said.

None of the watchdog officials asked for legislation to help them gain access, because they all agreed existing law should be sufficient.

“I therefore urge this committee to look at enforcement mechanisms for the access and cooperation already required,” Elkins said. “The IG Act is fine as written. The agencies’ ability to ignore the act without consequence is the problem.”

But Horowitz, of the DOJ, said that Justice’s top officials are in the process of determining whether to grant him more access to what he wants. If that results in a restrictive ruling, he said he might return to ask for legislative changes.

Ranking member Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsDem lawmaker: 'Quite clear' Trump committed impeachable offenses Cummings on impeachment: 'We may very well come to that' Democrats should be careful wielding more investigations MORE (D-Md.) said a new law to clarify the rights of inspectors general might be needed.

“I believe that this idea should be considered carefully,” he said. “Although I will not hesitate to pursue statutory clarification of necessary, the last thing the IGs need is for legislation to be introduced and fail, which could have the unintended effect of diluting their authority.”