Watchdog: Accountability

Darrell Issa demands Peace Corps stop stonewalling IG on sexual assault information

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Crime,Watchdog,Michal Conger,Darrell Issa,Inspectors General,Accountability

Peace Corps officials refuse to give their agency's inspector general information on sexual assaults of volunteers serving overseas.

They've even issued an agency-wide policy barring Peace Corps IG Kathy Buller from gaining access to sexual assault incident reports.

Hiding any information is unacceptable. Hiding this information is abhorrent.

That policy is "abhorrent" and violates federal laws giving the IG authority to investigate how the Peace Corps handles sexual assaults of its volunteers, according to California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa.

Issa is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"The Peace Corps' refusal to provide this information to the IG creates the impression that the Peace Corps is attempting to conceal information from the IG, the Peace Corps volunteer community, and the public," Issa said in an Aug. 22 letter to acting Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Washington Examiner.

One in eight volunteers reported being sexually assaulted in 2012, a noticeable jump from previous years, according to the Peace Corps. The agency did not say how many assaults occurred.

Issa called the one-in-eight figure "troubling" and said agency officials should "encourage and empower the IG to identify ways to address the program's pervasive sexual assault problem."

Both the Inspector General Act of 1978 and the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 give the Peace Corps IG access to official information needed to evaluate Peace Corps' sexual assault prevention and response programs.

The Puzey Act also requires the IG to review a "statistically significant" number of cases in its review. But most incidents are reported as "restricted" to protect the victim's identity, and the agency refuses to provide any restricted reports to the IG.

Buller wants information such as the country in which an assault took place; whether it occurred in a public or private location; and if the perpetrator was affiliated with the Peace Corps. Such details don't identify victims, but can help identify trends in volunteer assaults.

Buller described the problem with the agency's stonewalling in her latest Semiannual Report to Congress, released Nov. 21.

"By establishing restricted reporting as the default reporting avenue for volunteers and denying [the IG] access to any information from such reports the agency is establishing a process that impedes effective oversight or accountability, making the agency’s response to volunteer allegations of sexual assault susceptible to mismanagement and impunity," the report said.

“Federal inspectors general are often the first line of defense against federal agency abuses. When an agency denies information to an IG, they are denying it to the American people," Issa told the Examiner.

"IGs need information from agencies to fulfill their mission. In this case, the Peace Corps IG has a statutory role in protecting the safety of the men and women selflessly serving overseas as volunteers. The Peace Corps has a statutory obligation to provide it. Hiding any information is unacceptable. Hiding this information is abhorrent,” Issa said.

Since Oct. 31, the agency has begun providing the IG with the three pieces of non-personally identifiable information Buller requested. It has not provided the information about restricted cases that the IG says the IG Act and the Puzey Act also give the IG office access to.

"We have serious concerns with agency policies and procedures that impede our broad right of access to all agency records, documents and information under [the] Inspector General Act of 1978," Buller told the Examiner.

"Congress passed the law to provide independent oversight over agency programs and operations. Without such access we are unable to conduct our work of promoting accountability and preventing and detecting fraud and mismanagement," she said.

Issa gave the Peace Corps a Sept. 5 deadline to provide the contested information, as well an explanation for its denial to the IG and any communications related to the denial.

The Peace Corps missed the deadline, according to a committee spokesman, but on Sept. 16 promised to give Buller the country, type of incident and the nature of the location where the incident occurred —but not the data itself.

On Nov. 8, the agency sent the committee an edited version of the legal guidance it gave the IG to justify its refusal to hand over information.

This story was first published on Dec. 3 at 8:08 p.m.

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