With the Presidential transition impending, many in Washington are wondering how a new administration will react to government oversight. But as a key watchdog noted at a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, it shouldn’t be up to executive appointees to dictate how federal agencies respond to their overseers.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said Wednesday that Congress must get involved and implement new rules, to bolster the chances of the public holding the federal government to account.
“It shouldn’t be up to who sits in the chair, in the corner office…as to whether we get access to records,” Horowitz told Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
Horowitz was describing the common impediment to internal audits at a House Oversight Committee hearing on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s confidential informants program.
He recalled how his office’s probe of the sprawling, opaque system had been stonewalled for about a year, under the previous head of the DEA.
Michele Leonhart resigned in May 2015, amid widespread criticism of her leadership by Republican and Democratic members on the Oversight Committee.
“My auditors can explain in great detail how little they had to do because of how many roadblocks were thrown up in front of them,” Horowitz said, of the first year of the probe, which was launched in February 2014. “That has changed, I am pleased to report, dramatically, with the new leadership.”
The investigation, which was completed in September, found that the DEA might be committing a range of constitutional abuses, while wasting significant government resources. It has pledged to work with Congress to rectify problems highlighted in the report.
However, Horowitz cautioned, the mere fact that report exists “should never be up to the person being reviewed by us.”
The watchdog then touted a piece of reform that would give additional subpoena authorities to the federal government’s 73 inspectors general.
“It demonstrates why we need the IG Empowerment Act,” he said.
The bill passed the House in June, with rules under suspension, meaning it was approved by a two-thirds majority and without amendment. The Senate, however, has since declined to take it up.
That could change in the lame duck, Horowitz noted.
“I’m hopeful in the next week or so, we can get it through the Senate, as well,” Horowitz had also noted.
In August 2015, Horowitz questioned the Obama Administraiton’s commitment to transparency, after the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo justifying the denial of records to inspectors general across the federal government.
The guidance stated that executive agencies could deny the auditors access to investigative information, including that which relates to grand jury proceedings wiretaps, and subpoenas for business records.
Systemic stonewalling, at least within the DOJ, had been ongoing long before the memo was issued, as Horowitz noted at the time.
“Until May 2015, my office encountered significant resistance from the DEA when attempting to obtain documents for a number of our reviews,” Horowitz said before a Senate committee hearing.