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Inspector General Firing Widely Criticized

April 14, 2020

Earlier this month, President Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community. Atkinson was the Inspector General (IG) who handled the Ukraine whistleblower complaint. His decision to inform Congress of that complaint led to an impeachment investigation and, ultimately, impeachment.

The President announced the firing late on a Friday night. The statute for the intelligence community requires 30 days’ notice to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. However, he placed Atkinson on immediate administrative leave rather than allowing him to continue serving in the meantime.

In informing Congress of his decision, Mr. Trump stated that he no longer had the “fullest confidence” in Atkinson. Later, he admitting firing Atkinson because he was upset that he’d told Congress about the whistleblower’s complaint.

Atkinson Responds, Standing Up For Whistleblowers

Within days of being fired, Atkinson issued his own statement. In it, he acknowledged that presidents have the power to remove IGs for cause. He expressed a belief, however, that:

[T]he President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General, and from my commitment to continue to do so.

Atkinson explained that his role as IG obligated him to provide whistleblowers with an effective way to disclose urgent national security matters to congressional intelligence committees and to protect their identities “as a guard against reprisals.” He emphasized that IGs are to be nonpartisan and independent of both the executive and legislative branches in performing their duties. Atkinson defended his actions regarding the Ukraine whistleblower complaint. He expressed pride in the IG community generally, pledging that, “Those of us who vowed to protect a whistleblower’s right to safely be heard must, to the end, do what we promised to do, no matter how difficult and no matter the personal consequences.”

Statement by Council of Inspectors General

The day after Atkinson’s firing, Michael Horowitz issued a statement on behalf of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). CIGIE is an independent entity within the executive branch established by the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008. Horowitz is the chair of the CIGIE and the IG at the Department of Justice.

Horowitz stated:

Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then acting Director of National Intelligence states in congressional testimony was done “by the book” and consistent with the law. The Inspector General Community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee. This includes CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and its efforts on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers to ensure that over $2 trillion dollars in emergency federal spending is being used consistently with the law’s mandate.

Bipartisan Group Of Senators Demands Explanation

While the President may not understand or respect the role of IGs, others in Government do. Last week, a group of eight Senators sent the President a letter requesting a thorough explanation for Atkinson’s firing. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a longtime champion of government oversight, prepared the letter. Two fellow Republicans and five Democrats also signed the letter.

The letter to Mr. Trump emphasized the importance of “efficient, robust, and independent agency oversight.” Further, the senators noted that removal of an IG must adhere to statutory requirements. Presidents are not to remove IGs for political reasons. Nor is a mere “expression of lost confidence” enough. Rather, IGs may be removed only when there is “clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to perform the duties of the office.” The senators further informed Trump that, by placing Atkinson on administrative leave, he had circumvented the statutorily required 30-day notice period. The senators asked the President to provide more details supporting his removal of Atkinson.

Inspectors General Will Continue To Protect Whistleblowers

It is discouraging to see an experienced, well-regarded inspector general fired for political reasons. As we have previously written, inspectors general serve a vital role in promoting transparency and accountability in government. As attorneys representing whistleblowers, we take heart in the fact that the IG system worked in this case. Michael Atkinson did his job. He protected the identity of the whistleblower. He took the complaint seriously and investigated the allegations. He maintained his independence and fulfilled his obligation to report the complaint to Congress despite efforts to stop him. After his firing, Atkinson made a ringing declaration of support for whistleblowers and IGs:

Finally, a message for any government employee or contractor who believes they have learned of or observed unethical, wasteful, or illegal behavior in the federal government. The American people deserve an honest and effective government. They are counting on you to use authorized channels to bravely speak up – there is no disgrace in doing so…. Our government benefits when individuals are encouraged to report suspected fraud, waste, and abuse. I have faith that my colleagues in Inspectors General Offices throughout the federal government will continue to operate effective and independent whistleblower programs, and that they will continue to do everything in their power to protect the rights of whistleblowers. Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.

Despite this firing, Inspectors General will continue to carry out their important role. Without their efforts, corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse threaten taxpayer dollars and the efficient operation of our government. As noted above, the CIGIE has pledged that the IG Community will continue “to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee.”

Conclusion

As our country fights the coronavirus pandemic, we need IGs more than ever. They are essential to fighting fraud, waste, and abuse in delivery of health care services to COVID-19 victims. In addition, IGs serve a vital role in ensuring that trillions of dollars in emergency spending is not misused.

Just this week, the Boston Globe editorial board wrote that “Congress must protect inspectors general.” The editorial strongly criticized actions that the President has taken against Atkinson and other IGs. In addition, it argued for stronger measures to preserve the independence of IGs and protect them from retribution. We couldn’t agree more.

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