GAO offers Congress steps to protect independence of federal watchdogs

“If agency employees do not have confidence that their disclosures to IGs will be kept confidential, there will be a chilling effect,” GAO chief Gene Dodaro said in the report, delivered to 10 Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the congressional oversight committees. “Potential whistleblowers may refrain from coming forward with valuable information on instances of wrongdoing if they believe the acting IG is susceptible to pressures to release whistleblower identities to agency management.”

The GAO report lands amid growing alarm in Congress about Trump’s treatment of inspectors general. In April, Trump removed the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, over his decision to inform Congress about the existence of a whistleblower complaint accusing Trump of wrongdoing — a disclosure required by law. Trump last month removed State Department inspector general Steve Linick, later attributing the decision to a request from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was the subject of at least two reviews Linick was conducting.

In between, Trump demoted the acting inspector general of the Pentagon, who had been slated to oversee a government-wide review of the federal coronavirus response, and he nominated a replacement for the acting Health and Human Services inspector general, days after assailing her for a report that faulted the federal government’s preparedness for the pandemic.

“Given the unique role that IGs play within the executive branch, they should be protected from removal to the limits allowed by the U.S. Constitution,” Dodaro concluded.

Democrats howled at Trump’s actions, accusing him of attempting to dismantle one of the only functional checks on his administration’s actions, and even some Senate Republicans took exception to Trump’s efforts to abruptly dismiss the Senate-confirmed Atkinson and Linick without notice.

GAO’s report suggests steps Congress could take to address situations like these, particularly in the case of Linick’s replacement, an agency insider and Pompeo ally who is expected to retain his original position. Among Congress’ options, per GAO:

-Prohibit Trump from removing inspectors general without cause.
-Require the administration to notify Congress when an inspector general is placed on administrative leave, not just when they’re designated for removal.
-Require periodic reporting on inspector general vacancies and the impact on oversight of lingering vacancies.
-Require agencies to document threats to the independence of inspectors general and efforts to reduce them.
-Mandate that inspectors general who face conflicts or threats to independence recuse themselves from affected investigations.

GAO spends much of its report focused on the conflict between temporary inspectors general who hold dual positions in the agencies they’re purported to oversee.

“Their existing portfolios of work and relationships may be more likely to appear to constitute threats of bias, familiarity, undue influence, or management participation than those of differently situated acting IGs,” Dodaro concluded, noting that independence is part of the statutory requirement and that acting IGs aren’t absolved of it.

GAO suggests that Congress could establish a line of succession inside inspector general offices, automatically elevating assistant watchdogs to the top spot if a vacancy occurs, or requiring that any replacements come from inside the inspector general office, rather than at the whim of the executive.

Dodaro’s report was sent to Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), all members of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. It was also sent to House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), ranking Republican Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Reps. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the chairman and ranking member of the oversight subcommittee on government operations.