At the end of June, seven inspector general positions in the U.S. government will have been vacant for at least a year, a government watchdog group told a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
The Project on Government Oversight, which investigates allegations of government waste, told the hearing that the Obama administration on average takes 613 days to fill an inspector general vacancy. Nominees have been named for only three of the seven positions.
Inspectors general conduct audits and investigations into business at governmental agencies. They are responsible for uncovering wrongdoing, and increasing transparency in government. When a position goes without a permanent appointment, the likelihood of uncovering government wrongdoing drops, said Danielle Brian, the project’s executive director.
“Among the most pervasive threats to IG independence and effectiveness are the longstanding vacancies that have languished at IG offices,” she said.
The long-troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has lacked a permanent inspector general for 519 days, according to the project’s analysis.
And the lengthy wait for a permanent inspector general at the VA pales compared with the situation at the Department of the Interior, where the wait for a permanent inspector general has been 2,291 days – more than six years. At the low end, the unfilled inspector general post at the Central Intelligence Agency has been vacant for just 123 days.
“To me, this is something I think every American, Democrat or Republican, would care about,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said about the VA vacancy. “It seems like our veterans deserve action on this immediately by our president.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said he shared Brian’s concern about temporary inspectors general not having independence to pursue investigations.
“When IG positions remain unfilled, their offices are run by acting IGs who, no matter how qualified or well-intentioned, are not granted the same protections afforded to Senate-confirmed IGs,” Johnson said.
“They are not truly independent,” he added, noting that “they can be removed by the agency at any time.”
He said that was particularly true now at the VA.
“The acting IG, Richard Griffin, has shown alarming signs that he lacks independence from the agency,” Johnson said. In his prepared opening remarks, he accused Griffin of not releasing 40 reports to the public and to Congress and keeping documents from Congress. He raised concerns that Griffin had “lost the trust of whistleblowers at the agency.”
Under existing law, an acting inspector general can serve only for 210 days. But Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general and the chair of the government agency that oversees inspectors general, said that in practice an acting inspector general who reaches the time limit remains in a deputy position until a permanent inspector general is named.
Brian, of the Project on Government Oversight, also said that even permanent inspectors general can be influenced by their agencies, noting the case of Thomas Drake, whose lawyer has complained that the Defense Department inspector general had destroyed evidence in his case.
The White House wouldn’t comment on the record about the hearing.