POLITICS

DOJ Watchdog Says New Opinion Prevents Him From Doing His Job

Legal opinion will "significantly" impair Inspector General's oversight efforts.

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Justice watchdog says a new opinion issued by the DOJ's legal office "undermines" the watchdog's independence and will "significantly" impair its ability to "detect and deter waste, fraud, and abuse, and to protect taxpayer dollars."

The Office of the Inspector General at the Justice Department conducts oversight of the department's activities and law enforcement agencies within it. But under a new opinion from DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel, the inspector general has to seek permission from the organization it is meant to oversee in order to obtain certain types of information.

"As a result of the OLC’s opinion, the OIG will now need to obtain Justice Department permission in order to get access to important information in the Department’s files – putting the agency over which the OIG conducts oversight in the position of deciding whether to give the OIG access to the information necessary to conduct that oversight," the Inspector General's office said in a statement. "The conflict with the principles enshrined in the Inspector General Act could not be clearer and, as a result, the OIG’s work will be adversely impacted." 

Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a statement that he strongly disagreed with the legal counsel's plan.

"Congress meant what it said when it authorized Inspectors General to independently access ‘all’ documents necessary to conduct effective oversight," Horowitz said. "Without such access, our Office’s ability to conduct its work will be significantly impaired, and it will be more difficult for us to detect and deter waste, fraud, and abuse, and to protect taxpayer dollars. We look forward to working with the Congress and the Justice Department to promptly remedy this serious situation.”

The opinion, which isn't necessary binding but is rather legal advice, in part deals with a rider on Congress' 2015 DOJ appropriations act, passed specifically to improve the Inspector General's access to documents and information. The legal office says that it's not clear whether Congress' language allows the inspector general to get any documents it wants. However, the office says, the inspector general can get documents if it asks and DOJ leadership gives permission. The inspector general doesn't trust that asking will work, and it's worried all that time spent getting permission will delay its investigations.

Horowitz has testified and prior inspector general reports have indicated that the request process can drag on for months and has unnecessarily impeded recent investigations, including a probe that exposed Drug Enforcement Administration agents attending sex parties. That report ultimately contributed to the resignation of the DEA chief.

Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement that the opinion would allow DOJ officials to disclose "certain sensitive law enforcement information, such as confidential grand jury information, that is subject to stringent statutory disclosure limitations" to the Inspector General. 

"The Department has long held the position that the Inspector General should have access to all the information it needs to perform its essential oversight function," Pierce said. "Consistent with this view, Department leadership has implemented procedures to ensure that the Inspector General receives sensitive law enforcement information in a timely manner. Additionally, the Department is committed to working with Congress and the Inspector General on legislation to address any gaps in the law that may hamper the Inspector General’s ability to access such information in a timely manner.”

The inspector general plans to appeal to Congress to make changes. Horowitz told Congress last year that his office had been blocked from getting access to documents it needs. He also said earlier this year that his office had trouble getting information from the FBI. Last month, Horowitz instituted a policy of making public any summaries of investigations involving misconduct by anyone in a senior management position at the Justice Department. One recent summary indicated that a U.S. marshal "engaged in intimate personal relationships with subordinate employees."

The Justice Department and the Office of the Inspector General have generally disagreed about how misconduct allegations should be handled. Justice Department leaders generally believe that investigations into DOJ attorneys should be handled by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which operates under the Attorney General, rather than the Office of the Inspector General, which has more independence. OPR has yet to publish its report on its activities in fiscal year 2014, which ended on Sept. 30, 2014 (nearly 10 months ago).

 See the OLC opinion below: