INTERIOR

IG investigates a lot, shares little with public

The Department of the Interior's inspector general closed 457 investigations last year -- and released public reports for only three.

The rest largely stayed hidden from public view, with even a redacted list of closed investigations accessible only through the Freedom of Information Act. Among them were cases exposing nepotism, contracting violations and allegations that BP America underpaid its gas royalties by millions of dollars (see related story).

Many of the closed cases were referred back to the relevant agencies, either for further review or for simply informational purposes. But at least 40 prompted some level of IG investigation, according to documents released to Greenwire under FOIA.

In a recent interview, acting Inspector General Mary Kendall agreed that more reports should be made public.

The problem, she said, is a long-standing office practice of only publicly releasing reports that receive three separate FOIA requests. That standard -- one that is rarely met -- was used to automatically determine whether an investigation merited release to the public.

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But Kendall said her office is developing a broader written policy that is almost a "default to release" investigative reports, with criteria that take into consideration privacy and confidentiality concerns.

"We will be looking more deliberately at cases that are on the investigative side of the house, and will implement a process by which we analyze which cases should be made public," said Kendall, who has headed the office since 2009 in an acting capacity.

Kendall's office may not be alone in its failure to release most investigative reports.

Federal guidance on such releases is slim, with each IG office adopting its own policy.

Unlike IGs' audits -- which almost never raise privacy concerns -- investigations are usually redacted or rewritten. Several IG offices, including Interior, include summaries of some closed investigations in their semiannual report to Congress, but the release of full reports appears less common.

Mark Jones, executive director for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said "there is no overall IG policy" when it comes to what and what not to release to the public.

"That is an individual IG determination, based upon several different factors, including the kind of report and subject matter," Jones said.

At U.S. EPA, the inspector general's office releases a short summary of every closed "employee integrity" case twice a year, organized by the rank of the officials involved and with all names omitted.

The agency also publicizes news releases from the Department of Justice on those investigations that result in criminal charges. In 2013, it posted online four such releases; that number is six so far this year.

Jennifer Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the EPA inspector general, said the office considers several factors when weighing whether to release an investigative report to the public.

"We currently make those judgments on a case-by-case basis, weighing such factors as a right to privacy versus public interest in knowing, under the standards of statutes including the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act," she said.

Kaplan also noted that EPA's watchdog is "considering, as an office, whether to adopt a formal policy or continue with our case-by-case analysis approach."

The Commerce Department's inspector general also decides on a "case-by-case basis," according to spokesman Clark Reid.

In 2013, that meant three investigations were posted on its website. But this year, its Office of Investigations has posted seven reports so far, including two that detailed mismanagement at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Many probes, few disclosures

For the Interior IG, most investigative reports are never screened for release, except for cases flagged as involving top officials or systematic problems.

In 2013, the office released public versions of reports for three investigations that had attracted media attention.

In one, IG investigators dismissed allegations that the National Park Service had committed scientific misconduct in its environmental impact statement for a California oyster farm. The debate over whether the farm should operate in Point Reyes National Seashore has drawn press scrutiny, most recently when the farm announced it would close (E&ENews PM, Oct. 6).

A second report found that Larry Echo Hawk, then Interior's assistant secretary of Indian affairs, "reaffirmed" the Tejon Indian Tribe of California without following the proper process. And the third cleared Interior's Office of Surface Mining of wrongdoing in its ongoing rulemaking to protect waterways from coal mining.

The OSM report is still controversial, with Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee accusing Kendall of improperly withholding documents. Kendall has said the decision to release those documents lies with Interior, which says they are privileged (Greenwire, Sept. 11).

That disagreement is just the latest between Kendall and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who has accused her of being too accommodating to the Interior Department. The Washington Republican's staff released a report last year calling for a permanent IG at the department; like many federal IGs, Kendall has been stuck in an acting position for years because of a slow-moving nominations process (E&ENews PM, Feb. 21, 2013).

Asked about the lack of public investigative reports, Hastings reiterated the need for a "permanent, independent" IG. Kendall's office has a "record of withholding information from Congress even in the face of a subpoena," he said, alluding to the OSM report debate.

"The lack of transparency about mismanagement and wrongdoing at the Department of the Interior is troubling," Hastings said in an email. "Congress and the American taxpayers have a right to know how these problems and deficiencies are being investigated and corrected."

At least some of the reports the IG didn't release in 2013 would interest the public, as confirmed by the Greenwire FOIA requests.

To get those reports, Greenwire first asked for a list of investigations the IG closed in 2013. Of the 457 cases listed, the case numbers for 261 were redacted -- meaning they would be hard, if not impossible, to retrieve through the FOIA process.

In a second FOIA request, Greenwire asked for the documents of 31 of the listed cases. Most were cases the IG referred back to relevant agencies, such as one alleging staff mistreatment at the National Mall and another claiming that contractors at the Bureau of Land Management abused wild horses in a roundup.

Steve Hardgrove, Kendall's chief of staff, said IG officials regularly meet to decide how to handle the hundreds of complaints that come into the office. Some are put in a general informational file, because they aren't specific enough to tackle or refer to an agency. Others are referred to the relevant agency, with either a request to report back or a note that it is purely informational. And some are investigated by IG officials.

The decision, Hardgrove said, is based on various factors, including -- but not limited to -- whether an allegation repeats previous complaints and whether it relates to the systematic issues the office has prioritized.

'Whispering watchdog'

Out of its second FOIA request, Greenwire received several reports that reflected varying degrees of gravity and many one-page referrals.

One report that wasn't released to the public detailed investigators probing a charge that BP America underpaid its royalties from Wyoming's Jonah Field by almost $8 million. In an interview, Hardgrove said the report should have been a candidate for public consumption.

Some investigations were sparked by Congress.

For example, Alaska Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) forwarded anonymous tips on serious problems at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement. The subsequent report found "no evidence of mismanagement or official misconduct," though it went through a laundry list of allegations against unnamed FWS officers.

Both Senate offices said they were satisfied by the IG's investigation.

"It seems to be that they were responsive," a Begich spokesman said. "We asked for an investigation, we got an answer, and that was that."

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said, "There's a history of incidents with Interior Department agencies. So when Sen. Murkowski hears from Alaskans, she is going to pass those concerns on and make sure they are taken seriously by the agencies."

Dillon noted that Murkowski has also met with regional FWS officials.

The IG also would not dig into other allegations, instead referring them back to the Interior office or unit from which the problem was originating. Charges that management at the National Park Service was retaliating against whistleblowers was referred back to the Park Service by the IG, according to one document.

But other reports would seemingly hit pay dirt but not be released to the public.

One report found at Cape Canaveral, Fla., "ethical violations" in circumventing contracting regulations, including hiring an unnamed official's brother and sister-in-law's company.

Despite those indiscretions, the report didn't warrant public release. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which also received the report through a FOIA request, publicized the report in a news release last week, accusing the National Park Service of "ignoring dysfunction and violations by NPS managers."

In an interview, NPS spokesman Bill Reynolds said the agency's regional office took "appropriate administrative action and ... communicated those to the IG." But the agency's response came more than one year after the IG sent the report to NPS for action; Reynolds said the delay was due to the need for "further internal inquiries."

But Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said action might have been faster had the IG publicly released the report, rather than allowing it to stay private. He believes the office should release most reports -- and most referrals -- to avoid being a "whispering watchdog."

"You would think they would want to -- it would be in their institutional self-interest to see their work [become public]," he said. "If it's not being read by outsiders, they're just playing an insiders' game."

Email: eyehle@eenews.net

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