Inspectors General Under Fire: Charting a Path Forward

On April 30th, the Program on Law and Government and the U.S. & International Anti-Corruption Law Program at American University Washington College of Law co-sponsored a webinar on “Inspectors General Under Fire: Charting a Path Forward.” Joining co-hosts Professor Fernando Laguarda and Professor Nancy Boswell were: Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO); Emilia DiSanto, Executive Vice President of Venn Strategies and former Deputy Inspector General in the Department of State; Sandy Parnes, former Counsel to the IG at the US Department of Energy; and DeLisa Ragsdale, Chief Investigative Counsel for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-IA).

Ms. Brian explained the role of Inspectors General (“IGs”), their function in the oversight and accountability ecosystem, and some of the recent challenges they are facing. She expressed concern that Inspectors General teams are under significant and unprecedented pressure at the moment. She attributed this to a number of factors, including: (1) the significant number of “acting” (non-confirmed) officials currently serving in IG leadership roles; (2) the president’s unusually hostile rhetoric about whistleblowers and oversight generally; (3) the president’s actions leading to the removal of Glenn Fine as Acting Inspector General for the Department of Defense (and consequently from his nomination as chair of the Inspector General committee supervising oversight of high-profile pandemic relief funding efforts); and (4) the high-profile removal of the Intelligence Community Inspector General, Michael Atkinson, without explanation (other than the president’s criticism of Mr. Atkinson’s role in complying with statutory requirements to inform congressional leadership of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint).

Panelists pointed out that prior administrations of both parties have removed Inspectors General without adequate explanation, chafed at oversight, and challenged whistleblowers. Ms. Ragsdale explained that Chairman Grassley was so concerned about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Atkinson’s removal that he wrote to the White House seeking more information about the decision. He has yet to receive answers but continues to expect them. Ms. Ragsdale and Ms. DiSanto both indicated that they did not believe the current environment was materially more challenging to the IG community. Ms. DiSanto questioned whether members of the IG community should feel any unusual pressure under the circumstances. But the question remained whether the totality of current circumstances present a challenge of a different order of magnitude than what has arisen in the past.

Mr. Parnes gave some additional perspective from three decades of experience inside IG offices. He emphasized their role as non-political factfinders and stressed the importance of good working relationships with their agencies, both the political appointees and the career civil servants. Much of what IGs do is not political, but when they are thrust into controversy they depend on their integrity and the support of Congress, the press, and the public. Mr. Parnes stressed the importance of congressional engagement with IG offices ‑‑ from reading reports to getting to know the staff and working cooperatively with them across the range of issues in which they are involved ‑‑ in order to build stronger and more robust support for the work.

Audience questions focused on whether Congress could further insulate IGs from political retaliation, whether the General Accountability Office could be strengthened as a backstop to IGs, and the lack of a Merits System Protection Board governing quorum to adequately protect federal whistleblowers from retaliation. The full program was recorded and an archived copy can be accessed at this link.