ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The Justice Department is unusual in that it has two internal watchdogs. They're currently running a joint investigation of U.S. attorney firings and reports of politicization of the department. Now, a man who led one of the offices for more than 20 years has told NPR that he believes the watchdog he helped create has become ineffective and should close up shop.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Here's one easy way to tell the difference between the Justice Department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility -call both places and ask for an interview. The inspector general's office will give you a straight up yes or no. The Office of Professional Responsibility will tell you they can't make the decision, it's up to the main public affairs office.
And that small detail shows one big difference between the two watchdogs. The inspector general sets its own agenda. The Office of Professional Responsibility or OPR answers to the Justice Department's political leaders. Only two men have ever run OPR. The one who's there now would not grant an interview for this story. The other, who ran the office for 24 years, is Michael Shaheen.
Mr. MICHAEL SHAHEEN (Former Director, Office of Professional Responsibility): I know people especially, you know, dear friends of mine, I know were suffering in that office.
SHAPIRO: Various government officials have suggested for years that OPR should merge with the inspector general's office, and Shaheen now says he has reluctantly come to agree with them.
Mr. SHAHEEN: On one hand, you have a quick and efficient office that's empowered to investigate both the military and the criminal matters, and you got another office that's plagued by a history of delays and bureaucratic layers superimposed on it. And by the end of an investigation - two, three years - you find that they've labored and brought forth, you know, a squeak or a mouse.
SHAPRIO: Is it hard for you to say this having led this office with such pride for so many years?
Mr. SHAHEEN: Yes. Yes. I've thought about this and I have pained over it for a very long time.
SHAPIRO: Shaheen was a career employee who helped create OPR in the '70s. He fought against the creation of an inspector general's office in the '80s. So for him to say OPR should close is a very big deal in the justice community.
Mr. SHAHEEN: 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.
SHAPIRO: OPR only investigates professional wrongdoing - lawyers violating 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 office has grown in the last 10 years and, quote, "established a lean and dynamic investigative approach." Boyd said Shaheen, quote, "may not be fully aware of the significant changes within OPR since his departure."
OPR today has a few dozen employees. It generally does not make its findings public, and although it puts out an annual report, the last one was from fiscal year 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.
So Democratic Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse found it suspicious that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales first referred the U.S. attorney firing investigation to OPR.
Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): 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. And 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.
SHAPIRO: The current inspector general declined to comment for this story. The last one was Michael Bromwich. When he was offered the job 15 years ago, it was his understanding that his office would absorb OPR. The merger never happened. And today, Bromwich is not surprised that the attorney general first asked OPR to investigate the U.S. attorneys' firings and allegations of politicization at the Justice Department.
Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Former Inspector General, 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 theOIG.
SHAPIRO: Now, OPR and OIG are investigating the controversy together. That's extremely rare. The Justice Department has promised that the investigators will release their findings publicly.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.