Lawmakers ask IG council: Are agency whistleblowers reluctant to come forward?

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Members of the federal oversight community told House lawmakers Wednesday that would-be whistleblowers need to feel comfortable about reporting wrongdoing at their agencies without fear of retaliation.

“We think whistleblowers are the lifeblood of IGs [and] of the work we do,” Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, and chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

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The hearing marked the release of CIGIE’s first-ever report on the top management and performance issues across the government. The report finds that several of the biggest governmentwide hurdles — such as IT security and human capital management — tie back to constrained agency budgets and trouble hiring and retaining federal employees.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the committee, said Congress and agency inspectors general cannot fulfill their oversight role without whistleblowers.

“If people feel reluctant to communicate with their representatives, we can’t do our jobs — you can’t either,” he said.

Cummings added that since the start of the Trump administration, the House Oversight Committee has not issued a single subpoena to any agency or official.

The ranking member said whistleblowers should serve as the eyes and ears of inspectors general.

“They cannot do this work in a vacuum,” Cummings said. “Congress must fulfill its own constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch. The entire system of oversight must work in order for the federal government to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Cummings asked Horowitz if employees at the Justice Department feel comfortable about speaking to his office, following a department memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In the Jan. 29 memo, Sessions instructed DoJ employees not to communicate with “Senators, Representatives, congressional committees, or congressional staff” without advanced approval from the Office of  Legislative Affairs.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the co-founder of the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, told Sessions in a Feb. 5 letter that the memo, “fails to address the right of employees to make protected disclosures directly to Congress.”

Horowitz told Cummings that his office has spoken with DoJ leadership to remind them employees have the right to contact lawmakers and their agency IGs.

“We’ve got to take steps to ensure that they understand they can come forward, report to the IGs, to Congress, and not be retaliated against, not be subject to threats, because it takes extraordinary courage to step forward and report out on fraud, waste and abuse,” Horowitz said.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the government operations subcommittee, asked whether some civil service protections, some of which are now more than 40 year old, make it difficult to fire career federal employees who have been accused of wrongdoing.

“How do we fix this?” Meadows asked. “The ability to hire, fire and retain continues to be in the headlines each and every day.”

While Horowitz said agencies should develop better ways of acknowledging good performers, Allison Lerner, the inspector general of the National Science Foundation and vice chair of CIGIE, said it is important to remember why Congress instituted civil service reform.

“I do think we should make sure we remember all the things that drove the creation of these protections in the first place, and we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because when I hear that we need to protect whistleblowers, we want to make sure that career employees have protections so that they’re able to perform in the non-partisan fashion that they’re supposed to do, without fearing that they could lose their jobs because agency leadership doesn’t agree with what they’re saying,” Lerner said.

CIGIE identified the following as the top governmentwide management and performance challenges:

  • IT security and management
  • Performance management and accountability
  • Human capital management
  • Financial management
  • Procurement management
  • Facilities management
  • Grant management

What DoD hopes to learn from audit it expects to fail

Glenn Fine, the Defense Department’s principal deputy inspector general, told lawmakers that while DoD does not expect to earn a clean audit opinion from its first-ever, departmentwide audit. However, Glenn said the fact DoD is going through the process at all is a significant achievement.

“It’s probably the largest statement audit in history,” Fine said. “There are probably over 1,000 auditors that are going to do over 25 separate audits of various parts of the Department of Defense. It’s the first time the Department of Defense is under full audit. It is highly unlikely they are going to get a clean or unmodified opinion. The opinion is really not the most important thing right now.”

The most important thing to DoD’s top brass, Fine said, is to identify deficiencies so that the IG’s office can issue its findings and recommendations.

“The department is on board with that,” he said. “They have visibility over all the findings that are coming in. There are different independent public accounting firms who have been hired to conduct the audit along with us. We provide oversight over those independent public accounting firms.”

The DOD IG’S office will roll up the opinions into one overall, which will be issued Nov. 15.

“It may be a disclaimer of an opinion,” Fine said. “I’d be surprised if it was an unmodified opinion. They’ll get what they deserve. But it is very important that they keep doing this, and that there’s a sustained effort.”

In addition to helping DoD manage its finances, Fine said the audit will give Congress and the public more transparency into how defense dollars are spent.

“It’s very important in determining where the property is of the department,” he said. “For example, equipment, spare parts, munitions — so they don’t order too much and just have it wasting in a warehouse, or they don’t have enough of what they really need somewhere else. So they need to know what they have and where they have it, and the financial statement audit will help with that.”