U.S. inspectors general say government has blocked access

 Letter says congressional action may be needed to ensure cooperation

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Independent watchdogs of dozens of federal agencies decried on Tuesday what they said were Obama administration efforts to delay or stall their investigations.

A letter to Congress from a broad cross-section of inspectors general cites specific instances in which watchdogs for the Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Peace Corps said they were denied timely access to documents and other information while doing their investigations. The letter says other inspectors general have faced similar obstacles, and that congressional action may be needed to ensure cooperation from government agencies.

“Refusing, restricting, or delaying an Inspector General’s access to documents leads to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings or recommendations, which in turn may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency’s performance,” the letter states.

The letter says the Peace Corps did not provide full access to records during an inspector general investigation into the handling of reports of sex assaults against volunteers. A Peace Corps spokeswoman said in a statement that the program respected and valued its inspector general and had recently signed an agreement with the office to provide additional documents, but that it is also committed to protecting the privacy of volunteers who are sexually assaulted.

The letter also faults the Justice Department for initially withholding documents in three different reviews, and says that when the records were ultimately provided, it was “based on a finding that the three reviews were of assistance” to department leadership rather than out of respect for the inspector general’s independence.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said the requested documents included grand jury material, credit reports and other material whose release is restricted by law. He said that before it could release the documents to the inspector general’s office, the department had to first identify exceptions to the law that it would allow it to do so.

Also cited in the letter is a records dispute between the EPA’s inspector general and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. The agency said it had been concerned about providing the information, which was related to a personnel matter, because of an attorney-client privilege. It said it ultimately turned over the materials before the letter was sent and said Congress could help in the future by clarifying that agencies won’t waive attorney-client privilege by providing information to an inspector general.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned by the letter and the assertion that inspectors general were being stonewalled. He said he would work to correct the access problems through oversight and possibly legislation.

“How are the watchdogs supposed to be able to do their jobs without agency cooperation? Inspectors general exist to improve agencies and get the most bang for every tax dollar,” he said in a statement.