Investigating the Investigators: Highlights from Recent DOJ OIG Investigations

July 17, 2019

By Dan Portnov

Office of Inspector General investigations don’t always make the news. After all, no one ends up in jail or paying back billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains as a result (usually). However, one federal agency’s OIG seems to garner an outsized amount of attention: the Department of Justice.

Are DOJ OIG investigations really that much more interesting, or is it a dose of Schadenfreude for the public – watching those in law enforcement get in trouble?

Perhaps both.

Let’s take a look at some of the recent matters in which the DOJ OIG was involved, and how the OIG might have been tipped off.

  1. DEA Supervisor Had an Improper Relationship with a Source and Approved Unjustified Payments to the Source

Just last week, the DOJ OIG posted an investigative summary finding that a supervisor within DEA (a component of DOJ) had “made unjustified payments to DEA Confidential Sources . . ., caused false statements to be made to justify the payments, and made false statements on documents relating to the suitability of a [confidential source].” The supervisor was also found to have engaged in an improper romantic relationship with the confidential source, misusing a government vehicle to take the source on dates, taking the source on personal trips and bringing the source to meet the supervisor’s family members and friends. The OIG found the latter actions to have “exposed [the supervisor’s family members and friends] to potential danger.” To top it off, the supervisor was found to have shared non-public information with the confidential source.

Notwithstanding the potential crimes that were allegedly committed by the supervisor, “[c]riminal prosecution was declined.” (It should be noted that DOJ OIG applies a preponderance of the evidence standard to determine whether misconduct occurred, not the reasonable doubt standard as in a criminal case.)

How did all of this misconduct come to light? The DEA Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) received an anonymous tip. As we’ve written previously (here), it is common for colleagues or subordinates to seek revenge against supervisors by reporting them to internal complaint centers like OPR.

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  1. DOJ OIG Recommends Procedural Reform for DOJ Regarding the Purchase of Tickets to Sports Events

On July 2, DOJ OIG issued a press release and official policy recommendation to DOJ on the matter of DOJ employees’ purchases of sports tickets. The matter gained attention when OIG investigated certain DOJ supervisors for buying tickets to sporting events at face value, when the same tickets were generally not available to the public at that price.

While the OIG did not find any misconduct or violation of gift rules – the DOJ employees did pay face value after all – it still noted the appearance of benefit from or misuse of official position. As a result, the OIG recommended for DOJ to issue guidance regarding the circumstances under which it is permissible for an employee to accept an offer to purchase tickets from a third party at face value, when the offer is made to the employee solely because of the employee’s official position, and is not also available to the general public.

There are a few ways in which this investigation could have come about. First, an anonymous tip could have been made to OPR. Or an employee may have called the DOJ internal ethics helpline, requesting advice on the propriety of purchasing tickets.

It is not clear yet whether DOJ will heed its OIG’s recommendation to enact such policy. After all, there are many businesses – insurance companies, rental cars and credit unions come to mind – that offer benefits or services to federal employees solely because they are federal employees. As long as sports leagues make face-value tickets available to the entire agency, one can envision this practice being above board.

  1. DOJ Trial Attorney Engages in “Sexting.”

Last month DOJ OIG published an investigative summary finding misconduct by a trial attorney who had sexually explicit images on their DOJ issued laptop computer and cell phone. The images were not associated with any official investigation or litigation, and the attorney admitted to exchanging the pictures with other adults they knew. Such conduct violated the DOJ IT rules.

Upon completion of the investigation, OIG referred the matter to OPR and the “DOJ employing division” for potential discipline. It is not known what discipline, if any, was imposed.

In 2019, sexting or viewing sexually explicit images on a government issued device is just a ticking time bomb. With potential malware and other safety concerns, government IT departments are regularly flagging potentially compromising (pun not intended) communications and internet sites. Any government employee who thinks they have some expectation of privacy on their government devices is not only mistaken, but also putting her job in jeopardy. This is not exactly the crime of the century (assuming the images are of consenting adults), but it’s still taken seriously by government investigators.

In conclusion, the DOJ OIG has been very active, and the sources of its recent investigations are typical of OIGs throughout the government. We urge our readers to heed these examples and stay out of trouble. However, if you do find yourself with the OIG looking into your conduct, please find a lawyer quickly… and before you agree to any interviews!

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