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Justice Department’s inspector general needs more authority

Unlike in other departments, the inspector general at the Department of Justice is too constrained. Congress should change that, whether the Biden administration agrees or not.

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz speaks during a Senate Judiciary hearing on Sept. 15.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

When he was on the campaign trail, President Biden promised a return to normalcy — an undoing of the norm-shattering, antidemocratic presidency of Donald Trump. But Biden’s administration has yet to take the necessary steps to ensure that no future president can be as blatantly corrupt and self-serving as his predecessor was. More alarmingly, the administration seems, at times, reluctant to meaningfully strengthen oversight of the executive branch.

At least as far as is publicly known, the Department of Justice, for example, has not shown any signs of moving to hold the previous president accountable for crimes he probably committed during his time in office. And even when it comes to less controversial steps that have bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, this White House has still been slow moving at best. Earlier this year, for example, they pushed back on some new and reasonable presidential accountability measures that were introduced in Congress.


Now the Justice Department is continuing to follow that uncomfortable pattern. This month, in its annual review, the department came out against pending legislation in Congress — the Inspector General Access Act — that would strengthen oversight of DOJ attorneys and bolster accountability by expanding the department’s inspector general’s authority in launching investigations. The department argued that its current protocols, when it comes to probing its attorneys, work just fine and that no further legislation is needed. But that is far from the truth, and Congress should pass this legislation anyway. (The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.)

Unlike in other cabinet-level agencies, inspectors general at the Department of Justice are unable to independently probe DOJ attorneys or the attorney general. Instead, allegations of misconduct by the department’s attorneys are dealt with by the Office of Professional Responsibility, which is overseen by the attorney general. Not only does this pose a conflict of interest if the attorney general is the one being accused of misconduct, but it can easily fall short in holding people accountable, especially in an overtly partisan Justice Department. The head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, for example, is hired, and can simply be fired, by political appointees, whereas the inspector general is sent in from the Senate and can only be fired by the president — a move that would generally provoke much more public scrutiny.


The legislation before Congress would simply grant the justice department’s inspector general the same power as those at any other department. And as the current inspector general, Michael Horowitz pointed out, in a letter to Congress, the carve-out for inspectors general at the Department of Justice is “inconsistent with the independence and accountability that Congress envisioned” when it passed the Inspector General Act in 1978. Horowitz also rightfully noted that unlike his office, the Office of Professional Responsibility does not regularly make its reports public, leaving much to be desired when it comes to transparency and, consequently, accountability.

Though the inspector general has the ability to investigate major agencies within the Justice Department, including the FBI, the DEA, and others, their constraints give the department’s political appointees a better opportunity to protect themselves when they act against the public interest. Take, for example, how evidently limited Horowitz was in properly investigating Trump officials and their abuses of power. He was unable to launch a probe into a shady 2008 plea deal that was made by Alex Acosta, Trump’s labor secretary, with Jeffrey Epstein when Acosta served as US attorney in Miami, which allowed the notorious sex offender to avoid a federal trial and at the time serve only 13 months in prison (during which he was free 6 days a week on work release). Horowitz was also unable to do anything about Trump attorney general William Barr undercutting sentencing recommendations for the former president’s ally Roger Stone.


Horowitz is not alone in calling out the shortcomings of the authority of the Justice Department’s inspector general. All his predecessors have too. And the desire to expand the inspector general’s authority has broad support from both Democrats and Republicans: When legislation to do so was introduced last year, it fell just one vote shy of passing unanimously in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So whether the current Department of Justice supports the measure or not, Congress should still make sure that it gives the inspector general the tools he needs to strengthen accountability and oversight of the department’s attorneys. And if the president wants to make good on his promise to fight corruption at home and abroad, then the White House ought to get on board.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.