Politics

Obama Hamstrings Watchdogs

Most transparent administration in history?

While President Obama builds a government that does more and more to pry into the lives of ordinary citizens, he does more and more to keep his own government bullies free from scrutiny.

Last week, he went as far as any president since Watergate to make sure that government corruption could go unscrutinized and unchecked.

In a stunningly brazen act of defiance against the very notion that government should be answerable to the public, Obama’s Justice Department issued an order severely limiting the investigative powers of inspectors general — the very officers who are the first line of defense against government corruption and waste.

This is the latest, and the most dangerous, in a long line of Obama attacks against the independence and authority of IGs.

The administration’s war against IGs began in particularly nasty form just four months after Obama took office.

First, let’s understand what IGs are and do. The Congressional Research Service last December defined IGs “as permanent, nonpartisan, and independent offices,” tasked by Congress, on behalf of the American people, with fighting “waste, fraud, and abuse … in more than 70 federal agencies.” As Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz told the Washington Times, the law gives IGs the authority to “access ‘all’ documents necessary to conduct effective oversight.”

Yet last week the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, run by an Obama political appointee, ruled that henceforth IGs must request permission from agency heads before they can access grand jury, wiretap, and fair credit information. Without independent authority to review such documents (while of course observing all the usual safeguards against public disclosure of such information), IGs will be at the mercy of the very agencies against whose potential abuses the IGs are serving as watchdogs.

This is the equivalent of telling a police investigator that his lawfully executed warrant is a mere request to search a suspect’s home for evidence, rather than a court order with the force of law.

It gives an administration’s political appointees the power to thwart investigations into their own malfeasance.

It’s an outrage.

And, as noted, it is part of a long train of Obama abuses against IGs.

This is the latest, and the most dangerous, in a long line of Obama attacks against the independence and authority of IGs.

Last August, in fact — a full year before this latest assault on IG independence — 47 of the 73 federal IGs wrote a letter to Congress complaining about “the serious limitations on access to records that have recently impeded the work of Inspectors General.” They said the effect of Obama’s recent restrictions of their authority “may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency’s performance.”

They also wrote that the restrictions will make it more difficult to “save taxpayer money” and leave the agencies “unacceptably vulnerable to mismanagement and misconduct.”

The administration’s war against IGs began in particularly nasty form just four months after Obama took office.

Gerald Walpin, the highly regarded IG at the Corporation for National and Community Service — best known for overseeing AmeriCorps — undertook separate investigations of shenanigans by two Obama cronies, including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johsnon, a former NBA player.

That’s when the White House fired Walpin without properly notifying Congress and without providing, as required by law, an official reason for the move.

When called on the carpet for its violation of the law governing IGs, the White House put out explanations hinting that Walpin, then 77, was beginning to suffer from age-related “confusion” (read: dementia). It was a bald-faced lie. Indeed, six years later, the most recent edition of the Touro Law Review contains an exquisitely written, extremely cogent essay by Walpin on the subject of laws and constitutional rulings related to religious freedom. No man suffering from dementia six years ago could possibly have produced such a sophisticated work today.

Obama’s character assassination of a dedicated public servant was a particularly low blow, aimed at distracting attention from Walpin’s attempt to expose apparently corrupt mismanagement of public funds.

While the despicable treatment of Walpin was the most egregious example of Obama’s trampling over IGs, it was hardly the only one. In fact, within two months of Walpin’s firing — in other words, after Obama had been in office for just half a year — moderate Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was complaining not just about the mistreatment of Walpin but about the administration’s interference with the work of IGs in four other agencies.

Most significant of the four was the highly important and “special” IG for the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the controversial entity created to bail out financial institutions and other politically connected businesses after the financial crisis of 2008. Fortunately, the IG, Neil Barofsky, was able to leverage his superb reputation with both parties on Capitol Hill into a position where the Obama team could not muffle him. When he resigned in 2011, the Washington Post rightly credited him as being “a thorn in the Obama administration’s side over the past two years,” while noting the bipartisan praise for his efforts.

Obama’s team failed to stop Barofsky, but it continues to try to muffle other IGs. If any single department merits a strong IG, it is Justice, which holds vast powers not just to harass but to prosecute and imprison ordinary Americans. Frighteningly politicized under Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department now is the perfect example of why an overseer itself needs oversight.

By limiting the investigatory powers of the department’s own IG, the Obama team further increases the likelihood that Justice can get away with abusing political enemies — and, for that matter, abusing any ordinary citizens that the administration, for whatever reason, disfavors.

Author Quin Hillyer, while writing editorials for The Washington Times in 2009, helped break the story of Gerald Walpin’s firing.

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