On April 23, the Senate unanimously approved the Inspector General Reform Act (S. 2324), a bill meant to enhance the independence of federal agency watchdogs.
Yet it passed only after Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) inserted a little-noticed amendment to water down the bill. His amendment deleted a provision giving the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) jurisdiction to investigate misconduct amongst senior officials. The National Law Journal reports:
Unlike all other OIGs who can investigate misconduct within their entire agency, Justice’s OIG must refer allegations against department attorneys to the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). The latter office, unlike the OIG, is not statutorily independent and reports directly to the attorney general and the deputy attorney general.
In October, the House passed a similar IG bill, except that it eliminated the requirement that the Justice Department’s IG refer misconduct allegations to OPR. The White House had threatened to veto the House bill, and the Kyl amendment “was seen by many as a vehicle for the White House’s objections.”
In the past, the White House has repeatedly used OPR to block investigations. Last year, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales directed OPR to investigate the U.S. attorney scandal, even though it would face a conflict-of-interest by having to look into its two bosses — the attorney general and the deputy attorney general. Justice Department IG Glenn Fine objected, and eventually a joint OPR-OIG investigation was conducted.
More significantly, President Bush personally stepped in and blocked OPR from investigating the administration’s wiretapping program in 2006. CBS News reported:
The memos from OPR chief H. Marshall Jarrett to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, in February, March and April of this year show that while Gonzales publicly told the Senate that OPR was investigating, Jarrett was complaining to higher-ups that he was “unable to move forward” because of the lack of security clearances for himself and six staff members.
At the time, Gonzales attempted to defend the stonewalling, stating, “The president of the United States makes decisions about who is ultimately given access.” This rationale is precisely why IGs, who are statutorily independent, need the power to investigate misconduct.