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EDITORIAL: Let the sun shine in

Eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” is one of the most popular political cliches in modern times, in part because there’s no one who will disagree with a candidate who pledges to make war upon those things.

But when it comes to the people whose job it is to root out official wrongdoing, some significant hurdles remain.

Like all investigators, the inspectors general in the various departments of the federal government rely on access to documents and witnesses to make their cases. And despite laws aimed at ensuring the IGs have access to all an agency’s documents, some departments have resisted.

That list includes the Department of Justice, home of the FBI. There, the powerful but little-known Office of Legal Counsel has opined that some documents may be withheld during IG investigations.

That’s where Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, comes in: He’s railed against federal foot-dragging when it comes to access to documents for years, and he’s introduced a bill specifically targeted at overturning that Office of Legal Counsel memo. The bipartisan S.579 would ensure access to all agency records, as well as protect IGs from being placed on leave and expanding their ability to get documents and subpoena witnesses.

It’s that last power that has led Nevada’s own senior senator, Harry Reid, to place a hold on the Grassley bill, a move that led to Sen. Reid being criticized last week by the Citizens Against Government Waste. A Reid spokeswoman explained that the senator is concerned about potential abuse of expanding the IGs’ power to compel witnesses (including former employees, contractors, subcontractors and others) to testify about matters under investigation. The Washington Post recognized in 2010 that expanded IG powers were controversial.

Sen. Reid’s concerns are valid, especially considering that employees of the federal government subject to investigation may have to hire their own counsel at their own expense. That’s why it’s important to build safeguards into the law, while also ensuring the legitimate goal of the legislation isn’t thwarted.

For his part, Sen. Grassley says he’s taken steps in that direction. When it comes to issuing subpoenas to former government employees, the summons must be approved by a panel of three other IGs, and then is referred to the attorney general. The Defense Department’s IG office has developed its own rules designed to prevent abuse, and other IGs may also do the same.

It’s important that IGs have the power to compel former government employees to testify about wrongdoing, if only to prevent a person accused of misconduct from resigning or retiring to avoid accountability, a frequent practice in government. It’s also important that contractors be subject to scrutiny as well, to prevent the outsourcing of corruption.

Because Sen. Grassley’s bill has attracted bipartisan support, and because Republicans and Democrats jointly have objected to efforts to thwart IGs from doing their jobs, we’re confident that compromise is possible, and that Sen. Grassley’s legislation will be able to pass Congress and be signed into law. “You see, we all win when IGs can do their jobs,” Sen. Grassley said last year. We urge Sens. Reid and Grassley to work together to pass this important legislation as quickly as possible.

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