Multiple agencies are colluding to hide investigative documents from the public simply to avoid embarrassing high-level officials engaged in serious misconduct, a Senate investigation determined, according to documents obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The probe by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley was prompted by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general’s years-long quest to prevent the public from learning about its deputy inspector general’s incessant public masturbation by improperly stymieing a Freedom of Information Act request filed by TheDCNF. (RELATED: Top VA Watchdog Resigned After Being Caught Masturbating On The Job)
In 13 strongly-worded pages sent to three agencies Thursday, Grassley revealed that officials had been told by the Department of Justice that the law said they must turn over the report to the media. But instead of doing so, the officials asked other DOJ lawyers until they got one lawyer to say they didn’t have to turn it over — “cherry-picking” advice, as Grassley called it.
For more than two years, government officials largely ignored TheDCNF’s FOIA request. When a whistleblower provided the document and TheDCNF published a story, the VA Inspector General finally got around to formally denying The DCNF’s request in a terse letter. The IG’s missive concluded that employees, even executives
Grassley said concerted steps to protect a deviant show that the troubled VA IG has not made good on a previous promise to stop hiding the wrongdoing it is paid to uncover, and that the problem could extend to numerous cover-ups government-wide.
Meanwhile, theDCNF has independently learned of another report on serious alleged misconduct by a high-level government watchdog, in which officials have invoked the exact reasons for secrecy Grassley highlights as problematic.
In August 2012, the Department of Defense’s Inspector General informed the government-wide IG council of “ethical conduct violations” by an IG. It was presumably referring to its own IG, but that is not specified. The Department of Energy’s IG was assigned to conduct an independent review, but two weeks later, “agreed to leave the review.”
Someone apparently conducted a lengthy probe, as in February 2013, an investigation was completed. Yet in a June 2015 FOIA response, the DOE IG simply said “Due to the sensitive nature of the allegations, no details will be provided here (nor with [sic] the index screen be completed).”
It forwarded the public records request to the IG council, known as CIGIE, to produce another report component, but eight months later, CIGIE has not responded.
“We have determined that it is not in the public interest to release the withheld material … the public interest … does not outweigh such individuals’ privacy interests. Those interests include being free from intrusions into their professional and private lives,” the DOE IG wrote in withholding damaging information about a peer.
The language mirrors that used to deny release of the report on the VA IG’s serial public masturbator. Grassley destroyed VA’s rationale, writing to the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP): “As your Guide to the Freedom of Information Act makes clear, ‘ … demonstrated wrongdoing of a serious and intentional nature by high-level government officials is of sufficient public interest to outweigh almost any privacy interest of that official.'”
Grassley, the Senate’s most experienced corruption guard, is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
His investigation found that even though the Department of Interior’s IG, which conducted the outside investigation of VA’s masturbator, believed it had to give the report to theDCNF, it asked the VA IG, who said not to turn over the documents.
The Justice office told Interior that it must grant the report. A month later, seeking a way to grant VA IG’s wishes, it found another Justice attorney who was willing to give the opposite answer to the same question.
“The VA-OIG was deemed too self-interested to conduct an impartial investigation into this matter and yet is permitted to be the arbiter of whether the results of that investigation should be released,” Grassley wrote, adding that FOIA regulations appeared to be a crap-shoot if Justice was giving out conflicting guidance, and that the latter attorney gave “dubious” advice.
Grassley also scolded VA’s Acting IG Linda Halliday. She and her former boss Richard Griffin have repeatedly been accused of covering up — instead of ferreting out — misconduct not just in their own ranks, but in the 300,000-employee agency they are charged with policing.
After the massive and deadly wait-time scandal — which the masturbator, Jon Wooditch, missed in a “comprehensive” national audit of wait times — it was revealed that the IG often hid the findings of its investigations, sometimes even from Congress.
USA Today found that 140 health care reports had been kept secret since 2006, including one that found serious problems with opiates at a Wisconsin facility. The family of a vet who died of that very problem said if the report hadn’t been kept secret, he might still be alive.
“In 42% of the cases, inspectors determined VA officials had already addressed their concerns so a public report was unnecessary,” USA Today wrote.
“They didn’t expose the facts that they had,” Rep. [crscore]Sean Duffy[/crscore] told the paper. “And it was for the benefit of VA employees and to the detriment and death of Wisconsin veterans.”
The VA IG pledged to post at least summaries of reports unless there was a reason not to–but that promise appears to have been hollow, Grassley said.“It is extremely troubling that the VA-OIG has failed to release, in any form, a report of substantiated misconduct by a senior, high-ranking official. This lack of transparency undermines the office of the IG. Unfortunately, transparency problems at the VA-OIG are not new.”
Wooditch, the masturbator, was never prosecuted, and retired with a pension.
“There are many troubling aspects to this incident. In particular, prior to the 2008 misconduct, the Deputy IG had been disciplined in 2003 for having unauthorized sexually explicit materials on his work computer but was nevertheless promoted to be the VA’s Acting IG,” Grassley noted.
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