Ex-Chief Calls for Scrapping Justice Dept. Watchdog

A respected former head of the Office of Professional Responsibility says the Justice Department-controlled office should be abolished. The unit helps monitor ethics at Justice — but it is controlled by the attorney general.

The other Justice watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, is independent. For years, government officials have rejected a merger of the two agencies that serve as the Justice Department's internal watchdogs.

Now, as the OPR and OIG pursue a rare joint investigation of U.S. attorney firings — and other allegations of political improprieties at the department — the man who led OPR for 24 years tells NPR he thinks it would be a good idea to combine the two.

Michael Shaheen helped create OPR in the mid-'70s. He fought against the creation of an Inspector General's office in the '80s.

Now, he believes the watchdog he helped create has become ineffective and should close up shop. He said the Inspector General's office today is, "a quick and efficient office that's empowered to investigate both administrative and criminal matters."

But he finds OPR to be "plagued by a history of delays and bureaucratic layers imposed on it," adding: "by the end of an investigation — two or three years later — you find that they've labored and brought forth a squeak or a mouse."

Shaheen says it's not easy for him to take this position publicly, having led OPR with pride for decades.

In fact, he says he has pained over the issue for a long time.

But, he says, "I have to bow to the realities of a day and time with limited resources and the arguable ineffectiveness or limited effectiveness of the current Office of Professional Responsibility."

OPR only investigates professional wrongdoing — allegations that lawyers have violated legal ethics rules.

The Justice Department thinks it's important to have an office dedicated to that specific task.

In a statement, spokesman Dean Boyd said OPR has grown in the last ten years and "established a lean and dynamic investigative approach."

Boyd said Shaheen "may not be fully aware of the significant changes within OPR since his departure."

OPR has a few dozen employees. It generally does not make its findings public, and although it puts out an annual report, the last one available was from 2004.

In contrast, the Inspector General's office has more than 400 employees. It can pursue criminal investigations, and it releases all of its findings to Congress and many to the public.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, found it suspicious that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales first referred the U.S. attorney firing investigation to OPR rather than the Inspector General.

"It looked a little bit like this was an effort to give the investigation a decent burial rather than to really get to the bottom of what had gone wrong," Whitehouse said. "That's why I was so gratified that OIG really forced its way in and said, 'no, wait a minute, we've got to do this,' and then the attorney general really backed down and let them into the investigation."

Glenn A. Fine, the current inspector general, declined to comment for this story.

His predecessor was Michael Bromwich. When he was offered the job 15 years ago, Bromwich said, it was his understanding that his office would absorb OPR.

"The rationale was then as it would be today — that it doesn't make sense to have two offices that essentially play an internal investigation and internal watchdog function," Bromwich said.

The merger never happened. Today, Bromwich is not surprised that the attorney general first asked OPR to investigate the U.S. attorney firings and politicization at the Justice Department.

"What it tells you is that the attorney general, like many attorneys general before him, felt more comfortable referring a matter to OPR because he has a measure of control over OPR in a way that he does not over OIG," Bromwich said.

Now OPR and OIG are investigating the controversy together — a rare arrangement — and the Justice Department has promised that the investigators will release their findings publicly.

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