Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Justice Dept. Takes Steps to Restore Watchdogs’ Access to Records – The New York Times



Justice Dept. Takes Steps to Restore Watchdogs’ Access to Records – The New York Times

Justice Dept. Takes Steps to Restore Watchdogs’ Access to Records

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department took steps Tuesday to restore the access of some government watchdogs to sensitive internal records, but officials called on Congress to enact a permanent, wider fix.
The inspector general offices for 72 agencies across the federal government charged that legal policy changes made by the Obama administration over the last several years had curtailed their access to records, harmed a wide range of investigations and compromised their independence.
At least 20 investigations into topics such as sexual abuse at the Peace Corps and fatal shootings by the Drug Enforcement Administration were slowed, hindered, or sometimes closed as a result of the changes, the inspectors general said.
Justice Department officials said Tuesday that a new directive and an accompanying legal opinion would address some of those concerns.
In a memo dated Monday, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said that responding to investigations by the Justice Department’s inspector general “is of the highest priority” for the department, and she directed officials to provide timely access to all the material requested.
That includes grand jury documents, wiretapping records and other confidential materials that a controversial Justice Department legal opinion last year concluded could be withheld in some circumstances. Ms. Yates’s memo was first reported by The Associated Press.
In December, a congressional spending bill signed by President Obama threatened to cut off funding if records were improperly withheld from the inspectors general for the Justice Department and five others covered by the bill: the Commerce Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Legal Service Corporation.
A legal opinion last week by the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel — replacing the one that came out last year — said that because of that funding measure, all material must now be turned over to those watchdogs through the end of the fiscal year in September.
In a telephone interview, Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general and leader of the governmentwide association of inspectors general, said it was unfortunate that it had taken the threat of a cutoff in funding by Congress for his office to see its full access to investigative records restored for now.
“The I.G.s have a right to access these documents — period,” he said.
He urged Congress to act on a proposal that would ensure permanent access for all 72 inspectors general — not just those covered by the funding measure through September.
Justice Department officials said they, too, welcomed congressional action to clear up what they said were ambiguities in the law.


Some called for a more lasting solution amid charges that changes by the Obama administration had hindered government inspectors.