Search Results for: inspector general

Cause of Action Institute Sues DOJ for Refusing to Release Comey Emails

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Aug. 1, 2018 – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today sued the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for failing to respond to three FOIA requests pertaining to the use of personal email by former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki, and DOJ’s Director of Public of Affairs Sarah Isgur Flores.

The recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the Hillary Clinton email scandal disclosed that Comey had used his personal email to conduct official business, but that OIG was, “never given access to all the work-related emails.” Comey claimed he either forwarded emails from his personal account to his official account or to Chief of Staff Rybicki. In an unrelated incident last year, Flores was cited as using her Gmail account to issue a statement on behalf of the Attorney General in response to a Washington Post article. CoA Institute filed three FOIAs relating to these matters, and in each case, DOJ failed to respond within the statutory timeframe.

Cause of Action Institute Counsel Ryan Mulvey:

“There is no reason for the U.S. Department of Justice to stonewall and ignore these FOIA requests. The requested emails, even though created or received on personal devices or in personal accounts, are agency records and the public has every right to access them. It should never have been necessary for us to sue the DOJ, the nation’s chief law enforcement body, to force it to abide by its obligations under the FOIA.”

The three FOIA requests include:

  • June 14, 2018 – Office of Inspector General FOIA request for “all emails sent or received by former FBI Director James Comey or former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki on a personal email account … conducting official government business, that were acquired or reviewed by” OIG.
  • June 14, 2018 – FBI FOIA request for, “all emails sent or received by former FBI Director James Comey or former FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki on a personal email account … conducting official government business…”
  • March 2, 2017 – Office of Information Policy FOIA request for, “any email, including attachments, sent by Sarah Isgur Flores on or about March 2, 2017 from a non-governmental email account, containing a statement in response to news reports that Attorney General Jeff Session met with the Russian Ambassador during the 2016 Presidential Election.” CoA Institute also asked for, “all other emails, including attachments, sent or received by Sarah Isgur Flores on a non-government email account that were for the purpose of conducting official government business.”

The full complaint can be viewed below.

About Cause of Action Institute

Cause of Action Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit working to enhance individual and economic liberty by limiting the power of the administrative state to make decisions that are contrary to freedom and prosperity by advocating for a transparent and accountable government free from abuse.

Media Contact:

Matt Frendewey

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Now is the Time for VA to Change its Culture

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed Pentagon official Robert Wilkie as the new Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs (“Department” or “VA”). Wilkie takes over a federal agency plagued with a culture of toxicity, politicization, and misconduct. Although recent news reports and investigations of VA leadership have been a public relations nightmare for the agency, the prescription for success for the Secretary is rather simple: implement a culture change from the top-down to develop a VA that both performs its duty to veterans and operates in an ethical and productive manner.

A recent Washington Post report found that acting VA secretary Peter O’Rourke removed or reassigned VA staff members perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda for veterans. The report said that none of the staffers were given reasons for their reassignments. O’Rourke also incorrectly claimed authority over the VA Inspector General in a letter to the Inspector General. Although it would be easy to blame O’Rourke for the Department’s toxic climate, he only took office in May 2018; the systemic issues within the VA long precede the acting secretary.

Following the Washington Post report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”)  identified several issues within the Department regarding employee misconduct, retaliation against whistleblowers, and impunity for senior officials. Perhaps the most troubling finding was that senior officials, who perpetuate the agency’s climate, are held to a lower standard than their subordinates. The following figure shows the outcomes of seventeen misconduct cases against senior officials where disciplinary or adverse action was proposed over a 53-month period. Although twelve of the officials faced proposed actions calling for their removal based on the specific charges, only three officials were actually removed from their position. In total, 71% of senior officials who were guilty of misconduct served lesser or no disciplinary action compared to the original proposed action.

Other issues the GAO identified include:

  • Poor record-keeping – the current information system for recording adverse disciplinary actions does not track employee misconduct across the Department, despite the system having the capability to include and incorporate such models.
  • Poor communication within the Department – VA employee files investigated by GAO did not always contain documentation indicating that employees were informed of the reason disciplinary action was brought against them. The lack of oversight in the VA’s human resource policies increases the risk that employees will not be adequately informed of their rights during adjudication.
  • Lack of Transparency – VA facilities and program offices did not always provide the supporting documentation that they used to reach their conclusions about case referrals. This calls into question whether enough evidence was gathered to make sound conclusions about disciplinary or adverse actions.
  • A clear disregard for procedure – the report found that facility and program offices did not consistently follow policies and procedures for investigating allegations against senior officials. Similarly, senior officials may not have always been held accountable for misconduct, whether disciplinary action was not taken or recommended, or previous disciplinary failures were not considered in repeated offenses.

Whistleblowers provide a public service by exposing illegal or unethical activity within an organization. But whistleblowers in the VA allege that managers in their chain of command took actions against them after they reported misconduct. These alleged actions included reassignment to other locations, reduced access to computer equipment necessary to complete assignments, and social isolation from peers. Whistleblowers also were not provided adequate information by VA on how to document or file a claim of misconduct or retaliation.

The GAO report included sixteen recommendations to the VA, of which the VA concurred with nine and partially concurred with five. According to their comments to GAO, the VA plans to, among other things, have the Secretary direct the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (“OAWP”) review and issue guidance on how OAWP will discipline senior officials, and develop a functional process to ensure the implementation of whistleblower protections.

Wilkie is now the face of the VA. It is up to him to make sure that the agency implements the recommendations to protect whistleblowers and hold managers that retaliate against them accountable. Cause of Action Institute will continue to conduct oversight to make sure the VA follows through with adopting GAO’s recommendations. We have documented what happens when agencies provide lip-service instead of fixing problems. Our veterans deserve a functional and ethically-operated VA, and that can only start by repairing the climate of the agency from the top.

Chris Klein is a Research Fellow at Cause of Action Institute

Carelessness, Certifications, and Millions of Dollars: The SBA’s Mishandling of Federal Contracts

The Office of the Inspector General (“IG”) for the Small Business Administration (“SBA”) released a report last month detailing its findings from an agency-wide audit of the Women-Owned Small Business Contracting Program (“Program”). The Program provides greater access to federal contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses (“WOSBs”) and economically disadvantaged women-owned small businesses (“EDWOSBs”) that meet Program requirements. The IG found that an astounding 81% of the audited contracts awarded on a sole-source basis (i.e., without competitive bidding) within a sixteen-month time-period from 2016 to 2017 may have been given to firms that were ineligible for the Program. The total value of the contracts awarded to potentially ineligible firms exceeds more than $52 million.

Previous audits conducted in 2015 by the SBA IG and in 2014 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) warned that the Program was vulnerable to fraud without changes to its certification process. Unfortunately, the SBA failed to make those changes.

The IG found that contracting officers—the federal employees responsible for awarding contracts to firms—did not comply with federal regulations for fifty of the fifty-six set-aside contracts awarded on a sole-source basis. The contracts studied under the audit were all valued individually at equal to or greater than $250,000. Further, the fifty firms that received those contracts did not comply with the Program’s self-certification requirements, leaving no assurance that federal funds were given to eligible WOSB or EDWOSB firms.

The IG audit lists examples of other missing documentation, including WOSB and EDWOSB self-certifications, birth certificates, and mandatory financial information. Indeed, eighteen of the fifty-six contracts, valued at $11.7 million in total, were awarded on a sole-source basis to firms that uploaded no documentation to, the SBA’s online platform for federal contracting program applications.

The 2015 GAO report explicitly recommended better training for contracting officers because of a lack of understanding regarding SBA certifying procedures. The SBA agreed with that recommendation. However, according to the recent IG audit, one contracting officer, who awarded contracts to firms that had not uploaded any documentation in, told the IG that “he was not aware of the requirement to verify documents in” Other contracting officers incorrectly coded contracts as sole-source contracts. These officers handle awards worth hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and the numerous mistakes show a vulnerability that the SBA knew it should have addressed.

Just as it did in 2015, the SBA agreed with the IG’s latest assessment and findings. The agency’s intended actions, however, will not rectify the deficiencies identified by the IG. For example, the SBA acknowledged it needed to initiate debarment proceedings for ineligible firms and implement a certification requirement, but it does not anticipate finishing those tasks until summer 2020. The SBA also refused to implement the IG’s recommendation that would strengthen controls to prevent contracting officers from inappropriately coding contracts, instead arguing that the “recommendation is vague and would not likely help the [P]rogram.”

In perhaps the most interesting point of dissent, the SBA argued that “the audit findings unnecessarily rely on unverified and/or refuted data.” In response, the IG pointed out the problem with the SBA’s criticism:

The [data] that we used to conduct this audit was the same data the SBA relies on to formulate the Small Business Goaling Report, which is submitted to Congress and other stakeholders. If the SBA is admitting that the data it uses is inaccurate, the SBA should immediately communicate this inaccuracy to Congress to ensure that all stakeholders understand the SBA’s use of inaccurate data when assessing the Federal Government’s achievement of small business procurement goals.

Either the SBA is knowingly using inaccurate data in its federal reports, or its criticism of the IG report is fundamentally dishonest.

The Program was designed to expand federal contracting opportunities for WOSBs and EDWOSBs. Inflating the competition pool with ineligible businesses reduces the Program’s effectiveness and diminishes the opportunity for WOSBs and EDWSOBs to succeed as the Program intended. Americans deserve an efficient and effective government. Washington bureaucrats spend our money, and they owe it to us to make sure that contracts and funds are properly awarded to eligible businesses. The SBA must fix its mistakes—its negligence is inexcusable.

Chris Klein is a Research Fellow at Cause of Action Institute

The VA’s Acting Secretary Claimed He Has Authority Over the Agency’s Independent Watchdog. He’s Wrong.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acting secretary Peter O’Rourke incorrectly claimed authority over the VA Inspector General (IG) in a letter sent to the IG on June 11 and published by Stars and Stripes on June 20.  In the letter, O’Rourke wrote to VA IG Michael Missal:

“You also appear to misunderstand the independent nature of your role and operate as a completely unfettered, autonomous agency. You are reminded that OIG is loosely tethered to VA, and in your specific case as the VA Inspector General, I am your immediate supervisor. You are directed to act accordingly.”

The letter from O’Rourke was in response to IG Missal’s concerns outlined in a June 5 letter to the VA that claimed the agency was withholding information from the IG, including information about whistleblower complaints. By trying to strongarm the IG, not only is O’Rourke blatantly mistaken in his interpretation of federal law, but his threatening language in the letter is deeply troubling. While the relevant law, the Inspector General Act of 1978, does put IGs under “general supervision” of agency heads, it makes clear that they have their own independent authority:

“Establishment IGs [IG Act, § 3(a)]: The Act specifies that each IG ‘shall report to and be under the general supervision of the head of the establishment involved or, to the extent such authority is delegated, the officer next in rank below such head, but shall not report to, or be subject to supervision by, any other officer of such establishment.’ Except under narrow circumstances discussed below, even the head of the establishment may not prevent or prohibit the IG from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit or investigation, or from issuing any subpoena during the course of any audit or investigation.” (Emphasis added)

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) explains that “[w]hile by law, IG’s are under the general supervision of the agency head or deputy, neither the agency head nor the deputy can prevent or prohibit an IG from conducting an audit or investigation. The VA’s own Functional Organization Manual states that the VA IG is “an independent oversight entity” that “[h]as authority to inquire into all VA programs and activities.”

Simply put, an IG is an independent entity that operates separately from the oversight of any official within the agency it oversees. The independent authority of the IG ensures that investigators can conduct their work without fear of reprisal.

Cause of Action Institute has often written about the issues of having watchdogs without permanent leadership, but an uncooperative agency is a similar, if not greater, problem for accountability and oversight. The VA’s acting secretary should stop claiming authority he does not have and should not try to hinder accountability at a federal agency that desperately needs it.

Ethan Yang is a Research Fellow at Cause of Action Institute.

Federal District Court Excuses IRS’s Refusal to Search for Email Records Concerning White House Interference with the FOIA

Last week, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an order denying Cause of Action Institute’s (“CoA Institute”) cross-motion for summary judgment in a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) brought against the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”).  The opinion was long awaited—summary judgment briefing ended over a year-and-an-half ago.  Although we do not intend to appeal the decision, it is worth highlighting some issues with Judge Sullivan’s opinion and the IRS’s arguments.  The case is a fine example of how courts too frequently defer to agencies when it comes to policing their compliance with the FOIA.

Background: “White House equities” review and FOIA politicization

In March 2014, CoA Institute published a report revealing the existence of a non-public memorandum from then-White House Counsel Gregory Craig that directed department and agency general counsels to send to the White House for consultation all records involving “White House equities” when collected in response to any sort of document request.  This secret memo stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s January 2009 directive on transparency, as well as Attorney General Holder’s March 2009 FOIA memo.  Although originally praised as setting the bar for open government, the Washington Post eventually described the Obama Administration as one of the most secretive governments in American history.

As part of the system of politicized FOIA review established under the “White House equities” policy, whenever a requester sought access to records deemed politically sensitive, potentially embarrassing, or otherwise newsworthy, the agency processing the request would forward copies of those records to a White House attorney for pre-production review.  Not only did the entire process represent an abdication of agency responsibility for the administration of the FOIA, but it severely delayed agency compliance with the FOIA’s deadlines.  As we have previously suggested, “White House equities” review likely continues under the Trump Administration.

The specific FOIA request at issue in this case, which was submitted to the IRS in May 2013, sought records of communications between IRS officials and the White House reflecting “White House equities” consultations.  Similar requests were sent to eleven other agencies.  All those agencies produced the requested records; only the IRS failed to locate a single relevant document.  And the IRS only communicated its failure to find any responsive records two years after CoA Institute submitted its request and filed a lawsuit.

Why the IRS failed to conduct an adequate search for records

Our argument for the inadequacy of the IRS’s search for records reflecting “White House equities” consultations focused on several points, but two were especially important.  First, the IRS failed to search its own FOIA office—the most likely custodian of the records and issue.  Second, the IRS improperly refused to search for any responsive email correspondence within the Office of Disclosure.

The IRS inexplicably limited its search efforts to the Office of Legislative Affairs, a sub-component of the Office of Chief Counsel, and the Executive Secretariat Correspondence Office, which handles communications with the IRS Commissioner.  The agency offered no evidence that it sent search memoranda to its FOIA office, which is part of the “Privacy, Governmental Liaison, and Disclosure” or “PGLD.”  In fact, the IRS effectively admitted that it had foregone a search of the Office of Disclosure because a single senior employee testified that he did not believe any responsive records existed.  And because “White House equities” review was not mentioned in the Internal Revenue Manual, the FOIA officer assigned to CoA Institute’s request determined that consultations with the White House would never have taken place.

The IRS also refused to search individual email accounts within the Office of Disclosure because it would be too “burdensome.” Remarkably, the IRS claimed it would “take one IRS IT person at least 13 years” to capture the correspondence of all 165 employees within the Office of Disclosure.  Yet the IRS offered no explanation for why other reasonable options to search email did not exist, such as requiring individual employees to “self-search” email, conducting a preliminary sample search of individuals within the Office of Disclosure most likely to have responsive records, or making use of e-discovery tools like “Clearwell” and “Encase.”

The Court’s Flawed Opinion and Hyper-Deference to the IRS

One major flaw in the Court’s decision concerns its uncritical acceptance of a single IRS attorney’s belief about the existence of responsive records within the Office of Disclosure.  Although the IRS admittedly conducted a keyword search of its tracking system for incoming FOIA requests, it refused to send out search memoranda or engage in other typical search efforts.  The IRS instead relied on the declaration of John Davis, Deputy Associate Director of Disclosure, who claimed that he had never heard of “White House equities” and was unaware of White House consultations ever taking place.  On this basis alone, the IRS concluded it was “unreasonable” to conduct a more vigorous search.  The Court accepted this reliance without any real explanation when it should have given more consideration to the text of the Craig Memo, which was addressed to the entire Executive Branch—including the IRS—and the fact that the eleven co-defendants in the same case all produced responsive records—nearly all of which were email chains.

As for the search of individual email accounts, the Court yet again uncritically deferred to the IRS’s bizarre claim that it would take thirteen years to process CoA Institute’s FOIA request.

In deferring to the IRS, the Court failed to address the IRS’s practice of conducting email searches by manually inspecting the content of individual hard drives, a central reason why an email search would take so preposterously long.  This practice, which requires the IRS to warehouse a lot of old computer equipment, has been repeatedly criticized by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration because it could lead to violations of records management laws.

Additionally, some doubt exists, based on information independently received by CoA Institute from IRS employees, as to the accuracy of the IRS’s claims regarding its ability to conduct an agency- or component-wide search of its email system.  Because FOIA cases rarely make it to trial, it is nearly impossible to pin the IRS down on the accuracy of its claims.  Regardless, the IRS has certainly made a habit of regularly evading its disclosure obligations, a habit buttressed in this instance by an overly deferential judiciary.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute