GAO provides guidance to lawmakers to protect watchdogs, prevent abuse

GAO provides guidance to lawmakers to protect watchdogs, prevent abuse
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Lawmakers could take steps to protect federal watchdogs as President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE and members of his administration seek to remove critics of his administration, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote in a new report.

The GAO, Congress's internal watchdog, released a 12-page report on Monday that seeks to provide a framework to protect the offices of inspectors general (OIG) following a series of watchdog firings across multiple agencies in recent weeks by the Trump administration.

"Given the current challenges facing the federal government, the oversight provided through independent government audits and investigations is more critical than ever," reads the report, which was signed by Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general.

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The GAO suggested reforms that include amending provisions so inspectors general (IG) are removed only "for cause," or a specific reason. It also suggested requiring that the president give Congress a notice of his plans to remove or transfer an IG.

Another step that could protect IGs, the GAO said, would be to have them increase reporting to Congress. 

It also warned that acting IGs had to take steps to preserve their own independence. 

Trump has sparked concerns by tapping senior agency officials to serve as interim IGs, creating what the report called "dual hatted" situations.

"To protect the independence and integrity of the OIG’s work, an acting IG should be vigilant in evaluating independence and applying appropriate safeguards. Otherwise, when independence is impaired, there is a detrimental effect on the quality of OIG work," the GAO stated.

"A particular concern that illustrates the unique challenges of dual-hatted acting IGs pertains to the sensitive information to which IGs have access. Acting IGs must ensure that sensitive information in the OIG’s possession remains confidential and is not disclosed to agency management, in accordance with the IG Act," it wrote, referring to the Inspector General Act of 1978.

Trump earlier this year removed and replaced acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine after he was picked by peers to chair a committee overseeing the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Fine was replaced by Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Sean O’Donnell, and the administration did not offer a reason for the change.

In such cases, the GAO recommends amending the Vacancies Act so that there is a clear succession plan that would put the No. 2 or a senior staff member in the OIG to serve as the acting IG. This person who takes over the role should have served for a minimum period before filling such a vacancy, the report said.

The report also suggested that Congress consider requiring that an acting IG provide assurances to both the agency they are overseeing and Congress that they will protect the "confidentiality of whistleblower disclosures" and that "whistleblower identities will not be inappropriately shared with agency management."

Such recommendations come amid scrutiny over a series of firings by the Trump administration over the past two months that included State Department watchdog Steve Linick and intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson.

Linick became the most recent high-profile IG to be fired last month. He was ousted at the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoHaley has 'positive' meeting with Trump No time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Psaki: Sexism contributes to some criticism of Harris MORE, who was himself the subject of investigations being led by the watchdog.

Pompeo has denied that Linick was fired out of retribution, instead pointing to allegations of leaks coming from the watchdog's office. A Pentagon IG investigation, however, reportedly cleared Linick of wrongdoing before his ouster.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyAlarm grows over smash-and-grab robberies amid holiday season GOP blocks bill to expand gun background checks after Michigan school shooting GOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision MORE (R-Iowa) has emerged as one of a handful of Republican lawmakers who are publicly pushing for the White House to give answers as to why Linick and Atkinson were removed.

Grassley has criticized the Trump administration for failing to to provide a good reason to fire the top watchdogs, a remark that came after a White House lawyer argued in a letter last month that Trump "acted within his constitutional and statutory authority" with the removals. 

Last week, Grassley threatened to withhold two of the president's nominees for top government roles until he receives a better explanation.  

In April, Trump fired Atkinson in what was widely seen as a move to punish the inspector general for acting on a whistleblower complaint last year that led to Trump's impeachment.

These changes in the administration have brought fierce condemnation from Democrats as well as a series of rebukes from some Republicans.

Dodaro, who said the report was sent to relevant congressional committees, urged Congress to use its legislative role to protect the independence of IGs. 

"IGs serve a critical role in accountability and transparency in government. I urge Congress to use its constitutional oversight authorities to protect their independence," Dodaro concluded.