When U.S. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins issued a "seven-day letter" to the head of the Chemical Safety Board a year ago, the watchdog was dropping a bomb that only few inspectors general have in the past.
Inspectors general can report an agency's "serious or flagrant problems" to an agency head under the Inspector General Act of 1978. The agency chief, in turn, must pass on that IG report to Congress within seven days -- thus earning the document its moniker of "seven-day letter" and guaranteeing a maelstrom of media coverage and Capitol Hill outrage for the agency.
Earl Devaney, a former Interior Department IG, said watchdogs don't want to issue the letter, which he described as the IGs' tool of last resort when battling with agency chiefs.
"It's been considered in the IG world as a nuclear weapon. And as a nuclear weapon, you don't want to use it," Devaney said.
Sending the seven-day letter is so rare that Elkins at EPA may be alone among the bigger agencies in issuing the report.
Outside of EPA, a Greenwire survey of IG offices at more than a dozen Cabinet-level agencies and departments found none had issued a seven-day letter since the beginning of President Obama's second term.
Some IG officials declined to divulge if they had sent a seven-day letter. Yet many said their inspector general had not issued the document for years, even decades.
Inspectors general for the departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security and for the Small Business Administration are among those who have not issued a seven-day letter since January 2013, if not longer.
And in his four years as EPA's watchdog, Elkins' seven-day letter to the CSB chief is his only one.
Considering IGs' recent complaints about access and cooperation during their investigations, why aren't they issuing seven-day letters? For one, it could irreparably sever relations between an inspector general and an agency chief, according to Devaney.
"Why you don't use it is because it basically ends the relationship between the IG and his or her secretary," Devaney said about the seven-day letter. "It's going to embarrass the secretary in public and trigger a nasty political response from Congress."
In addition, threatening to send but not sending the letter can juice closed-door negotiations between an IG and management.
"I didn't ever use it. I will admit that I threatened to use it a couple of times," Devaney said. "Using it is not what you aspire to do. But having it there is a great deterrent and a force multiplier for getting things done."
Refraining from the letters also keeps the watchdog away from the klieg lights of Congress. Bill Roderick, EPA's acting inspector general from 2006 to 2010, said seven-day letters lead to congressional hearings and "bad press."
IGs will have to testify too, and it really is a lot of work for them, too, and no IG wants to look dumb in a hearing," Roderick said.
Elkins' seven-day letter to the CSB head has helped trigger hearings on Capitol Hill, such as one by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this past June focusing on the chemical board (Greenwire, June 19). The EPA IG discussed his problems with CSB before the panel this month, as well (Greenwire, Sept. 10).
'Haven't had the need'
Greenwire's survey results are similar to what the Government Accountability Office has found.
A September 2011 GAO report found that only one inspector general out of 62 had issued a seven-day letter in fiscal 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Those findings track with an earlier GAO review, which found no IG had sent a seven-day letter from January 1990 through April 1998.
Many IGs haven't used the tool in more than a decade. For example, the Treasury Department's inspector general last sent a seven-day letter in 2000.
"Since that time, we have not seen a need to use that tool to identify problems. We find that the department's leadership consistently assures that we get the information and cooperation we need to do our work," said Rich Delmar, counsel for the Treasury IG's office.
Others in the IG world said they would use the tool if necessary.
"If we believe there were a need to issue a seven-day letter, we certainly would not hesitate to do so," said the Education Department's Office of Inspector General in a statement.
Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth said his office has "lots of formal and informal communication with the Hill."
"We haven't used them because we haven't had the need, but won't hesitate to do so in the right context," Roth said about seven-day letters.
Other tools of the trade
Inspectors general have several ways other than seven-day letters to apply pressure on agencies during their investigations.
IGs publish many of their reports online for the public and lawmakers. They also issue semiannual reviews of their work for Congress, conduct personal briefings for Capitol Hill staff and testify at hearings when called. Many work to develop relationships with committees that have oversight of their agencies.
In fact, several IG offices said they were in touch with congressional panels on a frequent basis.
And if that doesn't grease the wheels at agencies, there's always the press. Watchdogs can grab the media's attention with startling findings or raise the alarm in public when their work is slowed or stalled.
In August, 47 IGs signed a letter to prominent lawmakers saying certain agencies were impeding their investigations (Greenwire, Aug. 6). Congress protested and has since looked into the watchdogs' allegations.
"I'm sure they are getting what they wanted now," Devaney said. "It's a smart alternative than the seven-day letter. I was surprised that 47 IGs got together to do anything. This brushback, to use a baseball term, will probably work."
Congress has since sought to strengthen the IGs' authority. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved legislation earlier this month that would give the watchdogs new subpoena powers over government contractors and former federal workers (E&ENews PM, Sept. 17).
Some IGs espouse the power of the press when trying to right wrongs in government. In a speech earlier this month, Gene Aloise, deputy inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said his office wants to make the news, since publicity has impact.
According to his prepared remarks, Aloise said "we publish, post, tweet, and otherwise publicize virtually everything we do."
He added, "If it's worth publishing, it's worth publicizing."
Michael Smallberg, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, said IGs should try to attract the press's attention.
"It's important to their mission to not only publish but promote their work to the public and Congress," Smallberg said. "The more effective IGs want to make sure their work is known."
Bringing the spotlight on agencies' lack of cooperation can produce results for IGs.
Elkins' seven-day letter was over a dispute over access to records at CSB. Eventually, the board handed over the documents to the watchdog.
Devaney, who also chaired the board overseeing the economic stimulus package, said IGs need to have cooperation with those they're investigating -- a rapport that the IG's tool of last resort could end.
"It's a balancing act between maintaining independence, but you have to have a working relationship with the department," Devaney said. "When you issue one of those [a seven-day letter], it's over. You don't want to do that if there is a chance for diplomacy."