WASHINGTON -- Every single Justice Department inspector general who has led the office since it was created a quarter century ago agreed Tuesday that misconduct allegations against federal prosecutors should be handled by the department's top watchdog and not by a separate internal unit that operates under the attorney general.
Unlike those in other major federal agencies, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General isn't allowed to investigate alleged misconduct by a massive chunk of the department's employees. Instead, inquiries into the conduct of Justice Department lawyers in Washington and assistant U.S. attorneys across the country are handled by the Office of Professional Responsibility, an entity that has long been criticized for its lack of transparency.
Federal judges have railed against OPR, which one former federal prosecutor called a "roach motel" because cases "check in, but they don’t check out." Even the man who helped create the office and ran it for 22 years said before his death in 2007 that he believed it should be abolished and its duties handed over to OIG.
An independent investigation by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight found 650 infractions by Justice Department attorneys -- more than 400 of them categorized as reckless or intentional -- from fiscal years 2002 through 2013. The department itself does not disclose the names of lawyers investigated or the details of the cases.
"The Department of Justice OIG should be like every other OIG that has full jurisdiction throughout their agency," said Glenn Fine, who served as the Justice Department's inspector general from 2000 until 2011, at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the office on Tuesday. "We have the capacity to perform the work and the ability to learn it."
Former Inspector General Michael Bromwich, who served from 1994 until 1999, noted that he was recruited to the position on the premise that OPR's functions would be folded into the Inspector General's office, but that the plan was scrapped after opposition from Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I have never found any of the arguments against folding in what is currently OPR's authority into the OIG to be at all persuasive and to have any merit," Bromwich said. "I mean, certainly today when there is a very strong and vibrant unit that includes many lawyers, the notion that there is something magical about reviewing attorney misconduct ... the idea that the OIG cannot do that work is silly. I mean it was silly from the outset, but I think it's become almost laughable at this point."
Bromwich said such a change "should be uncontroversial," but he was not surprised that it hasn't occurred yet. "There are forces on the Hill but also forces in this building, frankly, that have not wanted that to happen at various times," Bromwich said at the event held in the Great Hall at Justice Department headquarters.
Richard Hankinson, who served as inspector general from 1990 until 1994, called the office's inability to oversee prosecutorial misconduct "by far and away the greatest disappointment" of his four years on the job.
Current Inspector General Michael Horowitz has criticized the special protections from OIG oversight for Justice Department lawyers, saying that a system that treats misconduct allegations against various employees differently "cannot help but have a detrimental effect on the public's confidence in the department's ability to review misconduct by its own attorneys."
Indeed, questions about how prosecutorial misconduct is investigated, or not investigated, have long plagued both the federal and state justice systems, as The Huffington Post explored last year.
Earlier this year, members of the Senate introduced the Inspector General Empowerment Act, and companion legislation is expected in the House.
But Attorney General Eric Holder is against the change. Holder has long opposed transferring any of OPR's duties to the Inspector General's office, even writing a letter to members of Congress on the issue back in 2007, when he was in private practice. After a 2010 investigation by USA Today found that federal prosecutors were unlikely to be fired even when investigators find they had committed prosecutorial misconduct, Holder said that OPR "does a real good job."
Holder was asked about changing how the Justice Department handles prosecutorial misconduct claims at a House hearing earlier this month.
"I am not supportive of any action that would put under the Inspector General that which is now in the responsibility of the Office of Professional Responsibility," Holder said. "OPR has had, I think, a long and distinguished history of looking at these matters, recommending, where appropriate, punishment that has been carried out. They have a unique expertise. There are specific matters that I think only an OPR can handle. I have great respect for the Inspector General's office, but I don't think that the merger of those functions would be in the best interest of the Justice Department."
He also noted that the department was prohibited from releasing details about the outcomes of misconduct probes by the Privacy Act and other restrictions.
"We don't have the ability, because of the strictures of the Privacy Act, to make available or to make public some of the findings that we've done," Holder said. "We've tried to be more transparent over the years in producing summaries of the reports."
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