• Congress may grant more power and money to the FTC, even though it needs stronger oversight from its internal watchdog at its current budget and authority.
  • Currently, FTC’s internal watchdog is hired and fired by the FTC, and lacks independence
  • Left unchecked, the powers of the FTC can undermine the ability for entrepreneurs and innovators to reach their full potential

In a recent hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, the five commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requested more resources and authority, and Senators on the committee appear inclined to approve the FTC’s request. According to National Journal:

“I’ve never met an agency, or a department or a commission, that didn’t believe they needed more resources,” [Senator Jerry] Moran said. “I hear it on an ongoing basis. But I think this is different.”

Senator Moran, who chairs the Subcommittee, assembled the five FTC commissioners to hear their recommendations for a burgeoning bill to create a national standard on data privacy. FTC Chairman Joseph Simons opportunistically pushed for greater funding and the authority to make additional rules on data protection and levy civil fines against corporate actors found to have violated consumers’ privacy; and the senator found himself “sympathetic” to the pitch.

However, greater power requires greater accountability, and the FTC’s past use of its funding and authority has not been without controversy. In August 2018, Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) submitted comments outlining structural and procedural reforms to prevent the FTC from abusing its authority in the future. Without those reforms and a potential increase in the Commission’s budget and authority, effective oversight of the FTC will be as important as ever.

To that end, the FTC’s Inspector General (IG) is charged with ensuring the agency doesn’t overreach its authority, but CoA Institute’s experience with the IG suggests the office may be reluctant to hold the FTC accountable. This could be because the FTC IG is constrained by its lack of structural independence but also could be because of the IG’s cozy relationship with the agency. While many Inspectors General are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to oversee their respective agencies, the FTC is one of 29 agencies where the IG is appointed by—and can be removed by—the head of the agency.

Most recently, Chairman Simons appointed Andrew Katsaros as the FTC’s Acting IG on June 8, 2018, following Roslyn Mazer’s retirement after three years as IG. So, not only was IG Katsaros chosen by the head of the agency he is supposed to oversee, but he is also designated only as “Acting IG.”  Crucially, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) notes that acting inspectors general are less effective than permanent inspectors general:

Inspector general offices are most effective when led by a permanent inspector general, rather than an acting official … a permanent IG has the ability to set a long-term strategic plan for the office, including establishing investigative and audit priorities. An acting official, on the other hand, known by all IG office staff to be temporary, may tend to lack direction or vigor.

Curiously, while many inspectors general make their investigative reports public (there is a website dedicated to just publishing these reports from across the government), the FTC IG does not. It appears the FTC IG’s investigative reports aren’t available without a FOIA request, which CoA Institute recently submitted to obtain a September 30, 2015 report (a revised version was sent on October 16, 2015) relevant to one of our prior cases defending against FTC overreach. The report takes the form of a letter from the FTC IG to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) regarding the FTC’s handling of its case against LabMD, a small cancer detection lab that, despite ultimately prevailing in court, was put out of business by the FTC’s egregious overreach.

The first substantive section of the letter suggests the IG had no interest in conducting oversight if OGR was investigating the matter, even though IGs and congressional committees commonly conduct investigations in tandem into the same matters: OGR “staff’s representation that they would cease investigative activity factored strongly in the OIG’s decision to initiate investigative activity.”  The IG also complained that OGR did not provide the IG documents related to the inquiry, but the IG has the authority to conduct interviews and request documents from the agency to conduct its oversight duties.

Further, OGR published a report in January 2015 outlining many troubling findings related to FTC’s conduct in the LabMD case. Despite having access to that report, the FTC IG appears to have written its letter more like the agency’s defense counsel, rather than its independent overseer.

For example, the IG’s letter tries to roll back the position the FTC previously represented to OGR on a key issue in a way that is favorable for the agency:

From the OGR Staff Report Dated January 2, 2015:

The FTC admitted that the use of Tiversa’s information was unusual relative to standard agency operating procedures for enforcement measures.

From the FTC Letter to OGR on September 30, 2015:

Based on our investigative activities, the OIG found that the FTC handled evidence received from Tiversa in the same manner it had handled other evidence about data security breaches.

There are other aspects of the letter that also suggest disinterest in holding the FTC accountable. The IG went out of its way to note that LabMD had lost rulings in various federal courts:

We note that LabMD litigated cases against the FTC in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Both courts denied LabMD’s motion for preliminary relief for lack of jurisdiction.

It’s unclear why the FTC IG felt the need to mention that fact, but its inclusion was incredibly short-sighted considering LabMD won its case before the FTC Administrative Law Judge less than two months later and would eventually win before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018.

Concerned about the independence and prior work of the FTC’s IG, CoA Institute sent a FOIA request in September 2018, asking for the IG’s five most recent investigative reports, a list of all preliminary investigations opened from January 2012 to the present, and a list of all investigations closed from January 2012, to the present. We have yet to receive any responsive documents from the agency.

If Congress follows through with empowering the FTC with more authority and money, the FTC IG needs to do more to safeguard tax dollars and prevent overreach, waste, fraud, and abuse. History teaches that so far it hasn’t been up to the task.

Kevin Schmidt is Director of Investigations for Cause of Action Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinSchmidt8