Investigators use Peace Corps act to push for information on sexual assaults

By Kelly Riddell from The Washington Times, Thursday, May 1, 2014

In 2009, Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey was found on the porch of her hut with her throat slit shortly after she reported to authorities a colleague she suspected of molesting girls they had taught in the West African village.kate

The 24-year-old’s death exposed what some critics called a decades-old “blame the victim” culture at the Peace Corps, where sexual assaults often were dismissed or went unreported.

After a two-year legislation campaign led by congressional Republicans, President Obama signed into law the Kate Puzey Act to grant whistleblower protection, improve treatment of sexual assault victims and implement preventive training and education at the Peace Corps.

But the administration’s opaque interpretation of that law is thwarting inquiries by the Peace Corps inspector general, who is tasked with overseeing the law’s implementation, protections and effectiveness.

The Peace Corps‘ inspector general isn’t the only government watchdog being hamstrung by the Obama’s administration, which has promised to be the most open and transparent in history.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, has testified numerous times that his agency’s independence is threatened because he must ask Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s permission for access to information for some investigations, which at times have included Mr. Holder himself.

Instead of rebuking the system, some inspectors general find it easier to just comply with their agencies’ agendas by hiding or ignoring instances of government abuse.

A former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security delayed potentially damning reports about scandals that had been covered up and workers who had been punished for speaking out, a Senate report uncovered this week.

In addition, records show that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy personally intervened to delay an inspector general’s investigation into the agency’s Homeland Security Division.

“A big problem is some inspector generals aren’t acting as independently as they should,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, told The Washington Times. “We have a few very good inspector generals. We have a lot of inspector generals who want to do their job, but some of them are a little timid. Then we got some that will really comply to political pressure.”

A ‘blackout of information’

Kathy Buller, inspector general at the Peace Corps, does not appear to be one of the timid watchdogs.

In January, Mrs. Buller testified to Congress that the Peace Corps is refusing to hand over to her office information related to sexual assault investigations.

“We’ve currently reached an impasse with the agency” over her office’s role in accessing reports made by volunteers who are victims of sexual assault, Mrs. Buller told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Under the Kate Puzey Act, her office is tasked with overseeing accusations of mismanagement in sexual assault cases.

The act allows victims to report anonymously - so-called “restrictive reporting” - and the Peace Corps‘ general counsel has interpreted that to mean the agency does not have to share with the inspector general’s office all the details of reported sexual assaults.

This leads to a “blackout of information,” said Mrs. Buller, whose office is required to report to Congress in 2016 on the effectiveness of the Kate Puzey Act.

Currently, her office has nothing to report because even the least information - such as the type of assault and where in the world it occurred - is being denied to the inspector general.

After extensive negotiations, the Peace Corps has allowed Mrs. Buller to obtain the name of the country, the type of assault and where it occurred, but all other information is blocked. This means the inspector general can’t investigate whether proper care was given after the assault, or even whether it was classified correctly.

Additionally, under the Peace Corps‘ interpretation of restrictive reporting, if co-workers or other Peace Corps members witness something about an assault or the management of a case, they cannot report it to the inspector general without violating the Kate Puzey Act.

Seven members of Congress, including Mr. Grassley and Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, have sent a letter asking Peace Corps acting director Carolyn Hessler-Radelet to demand that the agency’s general counsel provide the information Mrs. Buller has requested.

“Significantly, Congress mandated the Inspector General to review not just training - programs and sexual assault policies in the abstract - but whether and how these programs and policies prove effective when applied to specific and individual cases,” their April 23 letter says. “This mandate explicitly requires the Inspector General to investigate the particular facts and circumstances of individual cases of sexual assault that are reported by volunteers.

“Unfortunately, the agency’s General Counsel appears to be determined to substitute his judgment on that question for hers. That is unacceptable,” it says.

The letter was signed by Mr. Grassley and Mr. Manchin, along with Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Reps. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican; Thomas E. Petri, Wisconsin Republican; and Timothy H. Bishop, New York Democrat.

Inspector General Act of 1978

The Peace Corps says it is concerned that, if Mrs. Buller’s investigators are granted unfettered access to all documents, they could launch investigations that could scare victims from reporting.

“By providing reporting options that allow volunteers to maintain their privacy, the Peace Corps is creating an environment that helps them regain the control taken from them and access vital support services,” Peace Corps spokeswoman Shira Kramer said in an email to The Times. “The Peace Corps is committed to working with our Inspector General to protect the privacy of volunteers and to provide for effective monitoring and evaluation.”

Department executives throughout the Obama administration are employing such tactics to block or inhibit inspector general investigations, said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit watchdog.

“More and more agency executives are pushing back and trying to come up with all sorts of reasons to deny IG’s information,” Mrs. Canterbury said. “General counsels have increasingly, throughout the entire Obama administration, tried to use a variety of tactics to delay or push back on reports.

“Some have used attorney client privilege - as if conversations between an agency’s general counsel and agency personnel somehow shouldn’t be made available to IGs,” she said. “It’s absolutely absurd that an IG doesn’t have a right to any information requested.”

Mr. Horowitz, the inspector general at the Justice Department, has had to seek Mr. Holder’s permission to gain access to grand jury, wiretap and fair credit reporting material. The approval process in obtaining the materials delayed review of Operation Fast and Furious - the failed sting that lost track of more than 1,000 government-issued guns, one of which later was used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent - and has delayed other reports the inspector general is set to publish this year.

At no point has the Justice Department denied any of Mr. Horowitz’s requests, but some in Congress have argued that requiring the inspector general to ask Mr. Holder for materials represents a direct conflict of interest and impairs the inspector general’s independence.

During a hearing this spring, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, told Mr. Holder that he was worried the Justice Department was intentionally trying to stonewall its inspector general.

“[The] inspector general at the Department of Justice couldn’t do his job unless they had unfettered access to stuff he was seeking,” he told the attorney general. “You seem to be stalling on giving him access to things in the Justice Department.”

Mr. Holder said he was just following the rule of law. His department’s general counsel has interpreted the law to mean that inspectors general cannot have unfettered access to wiretap and grand jury information - an interpretation that some in Congress dispute, but that the Justice Department’s legal counsel has final say over unless congressional action is taken.

Congress is taking note. Mr. Grassley’s office is considering a proposal to rewrite to the Inspector General Act of 1978, which defined an inspector general’s jurisdiction. The rewrite would make clear that the act overrides other laws that may limit an inspector general’s power.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shelby and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulksi, Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, sent a letter to Mr. Holder questioning his department’s rationale in keeping some information from Mr. Horowitz.

“We’ve either got to get the practices [at the agencies] changed or we’ve got to change the law to clarify,” Mr. Grassley said. “Since we have passed so many laws delegating so much authority to the executive branch of government, we need to police the executive branch of government under checks and balances and oversight.”
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