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House Oversight Dems Urge AO to Establish Inspector General

Fix the Court is praising Reps. Elijah Cummings and Gerry Connolly’s call for the establishment of an inspector general for the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.

In a letter sent yesterday to AO Director Jim Duff, Cummings and Connolly – who are full committee and subcommittee chairs, respectively, in House Oversight and Reform – cite several instances in which the AO would benefit from an audit by a disinterested third party on issues such as workplace conduct and the recent proliferation of hard to trace contracts.

“The federal judiciary is notorious for being the least accountable part of our government. Installing an inspector general in its administrative arm could change that by providing oversight of critical tasks, like hiring and contracting, and by ensuring the judiciary maintains its commitment to ending workplace harassment,” FTC’s Gabe Roth said.

Cummings and Connolly (right) begin the letter by expressing disappointment that an IG was not part of the post-Kozinski workplace conduct committee’s recommendations and point out that the Justice Department’s IG has played a role in improving the agency’s handling of sexual misconduct claims.

That the head of the new Office of Judicial Integrity reports to the AO director, they write, does not instill public confidence in her independence.

Another looming issue at the AO, the members say, is the steep rise in the use of contractors over the past five years, as government contractors have historically operated with less oversight than full-time employees. Similarly, the AO seems unwilling, or possibly unable, to track major segments of its $225 million worth of outside contracts.

“When our office asked for a breakdown in percentages and absolute dollar amounts of judiciary consultant services by contract types for the past five years,” Cummings and Connolly write, “AOUSC responded that it could not provide such data.” Even after contracts are approved, the members believe there to be “limited mechanisms in place […] to ensure the projects are on time [and] within prescribed budgets.”

The letter raises the important issue of no-bid contracts in the judiciary, noting somewhat ironically that the outside firm charged with investigating workplace complaints made by AO employees received its contract without competition.

Finally, Cummings and Connolly cite PACER fees as an issue in need of oversight. “We believe that an Inspector General for the Administrative Office,” they write, “could […] determine whether the PACER fee collection schedule, and its use as a catch-all fund for other unrelated judiciary programs, [is] reasonable and in accordance with the law.”

Over the past decade, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner have introduced legislation that would create an entire judiciary-wide inspector general that would be charged with, to quote a 2017 Grassley floor speech, “conducting investigations of possible judicial misconduct, investigating waste fraud and abuse and recommending changes in laws and regulations governing the federal judiciary, […as well as] important whistleblower protections for judicial branch employees.”

No Democrats have previously signed on to the Grassley-Sensenbrenner’s legislation, and no proposed legislation was included in the Cummings-Connolly letter. A new judiciary IG bill has yet to be introduced in this Congress.

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