Justice News

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Delivers Keynote Remarks at the Federal Inspector General Community’s 21st Annual Awards Ceremony
Washington, DC
United States
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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Thank you for that generous introduction, Rob (Storch), and congratulations on your relatively recent appointment as Inspector General at the National Security Agency.  Almost thirty years ago, Rob and I worked together in the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. Even as a relatively young lawyer, Rob impressed everyone with his expertise and insight.

I also want to thank Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Margaret Weichert, for her service as Executive Chair of the Council; Inspector General Michael Horowitz, for chairing the Council and for his ongoing work at the Department of Justice; National Science Foundation Inspector General Allison Lerner, the Council Vice-Chair, who worked with me in Maryland to combat grant fraud; and Wendy Laguarda, Inspector General for the Farm Credit Association, for co-chairing this ceremony.

It is an honor to join America’s Inspectors General, along with the supervisors, auditors, investigators, attorneys, and staff who help to promote integrity in government.

Most of all, I want to congratulate the award winners for your remarkable accomplishments.

All executive branch employees take the same oath of office. Most people are familiar with the first clause of our oath, the requirement to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies.” But some overlook the final clause: to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”

The first obligation is generic. It imposes a duty to pursue the national interest over any private interest. That applies equally to all government employees.

But the final clause is specific. Everybody recites the same words, but the meaning varies. In order to well and faithfully discharge the duties of “the” office, you need to understand its unique responsibilities. What is the mandate of your agency; what is the mission of your component; and how do you add value?

You need to know what you stand for.

In the Inspector General community, your mission is to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in agency programs and operations.

A decade ago, a sports psychologist named Graham Jones published an article called “How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better.” It considers how human beings manage to keep improving and setting new records. The secret, it seems, is to ignore limits. Never assume that you are restricted by what has been accomplished before.

As a young prosecutor, I learned how to find fraud. Just look for opportunities, situations where there is a nexus of discretion and profit. When there is such an opportunity, eventually a greedy and unprincipled person will take advantage of it.

But I encourage you to keep the Jones article in mind. Never accept the proposition that fraud and corruption are unavoidable. Root them out when you find them, and then support constructive changes to eliminate future opportunities. The true measure of success in law enforcement is not how many crimes we prosecute. It is how many crimes we prevent.

Operating government agencies with integrity builds public confidence in the rule of law, which is critical to democracy.

Your first task is to conduct your own affairs with integrity. Inspectors General exercise considerable autonomy. Autonomy in government is a form of power, and you carry a special responsibility to exercise that power wisely.

In the courtyard of the Department of Justice headquarters, there is a Latin inscription that reads, “Privilegium Obligatio.” It means that when you accept a privilege, you incur an obligation.

The point is made more precisely in a remark attributed to French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If that quotation sounds familiar, it was also said by another well-known philosopher — Spider-Man’s Uncle, Ben Parker.

You hold a position of trust, and public respect for government depends in large part on whether or not you live up to that trust.

Former Attorney General Edward Levi remarked that “it is by watching [law enforcement] that many of our citizens learn what kind of country this is…. The law must act with a sense of fundamental equality.… People must believe, if not in the wisdom of a particular law, at least in the fairness and honesty of the enforcement process… Nothing can more weaken the quality of life … than our failure to make clear by words and deeds that our law is not an instrument of partisan purpose.”

It is appropriate for policy decisions to take into account political priorities. That is what elections are for. But enforcement must remain nonpartisan.

As a prosecutor, and as a United States Attorney, I worked on many cases with Inspectors General, including quite a few in the audience today, and a couple of the award recipients. Our work led to criminal convictions of many perpetrators who defrauded the government, and also to civil recoveries of many hundreds of millions of dollars.

In my current job, I rely on the Inspector General to identify areas of potential improvement in our Department’s operations.

I hope you also work closely with your agency leaders to help them achieve efficiencies and avoid pitfalls. Cases occasionally arise that put you at odds with agency heads, but your mission should coincide with their goals — to achieve the agency’s priorities and serve the American people honestly, fairly, and efficiently. 

In the Department of Justice, we manage 115,000 employees, tens of thousands of contractors, and thousands of grant recipients. Even if most of them play by the rules – and I know they do – there will always be outliers.

In 2017, our Inspector General’s Office completed more than 300 investigations that led to the arrest of 116 people. The office also helped to recover millions of dollars for taxpayers, and made more than 450 recommendations about ways to help the Department operate more efficiently.

Preventing inappropriate disclosures of confidential information is one of the important issues I focused on during the past year.

Disclosing non-public, sensitive information you learn as a government employee may jeopardize an investigation or case; prejudice a defendant’s rights; or unfairly damage a person’s reputation. It also can violate federal laws, employee non-disclosure agreements, and individual privacy rights. In some cases, it may put a witness or law enforcement officer in danger.

Inspectors General appropriately encourage whistleblowers to come forward, but it is important to make clear that there are lawful ways to report wrongdoing, either to agency supervisors or to internal watchdogs, without making improper disclosures.

Those leaks undermine public confidence and harm innocent people. At the Department of Justice, we revised our operations manual to emphasize the duty of confidentiality. Transparency is often appropriate in government, but I encourage you to work with your agencies to help them follow the rules and honor confidentiality obligations when required by law.

Finally, I urge you to work closely with the appropriate United States Attorney or Main Justice component when you find evidence of criminal wrongdoing that may warrant prosecution.

A few months ago, in response to an Executive Order from President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions established a Task Force on Market Integrity and Consumer Fraud.  One of our goals is to provide guidance for investigating and prosecuting cases involving fraud against the government, including procurement and grant fraud. 

Two weeks ago, Task Force Director Matthew Baughman met with more than 50 participants from the Inspector General community. The Task Force will help us coordinate our efforts and more effectively deter fraud and hold wrongdoers accountable.

Let me conclude with a personal reflection. When I first took the oath of office as a prosecutor in 1990, I planned to spend just a few years in government. The mission attracted me, but the people who carry out the mission are what I treasure most about my job.  It is an honor to work with men and women like you, helping to fight crime and keep America safe. 

In challenging moments, I draw inspiration from a speech delivered by Attorney General Robert Jackson in 1940. He said that “sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and the citizen's safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches [the] task with humility.”

If you follow that advice, you will remain faithful to your oath. So seek the truth, serve law, and always stay humble and kind.

I am grateful for your service, and I am honored to work with you in the cause of justice.

Thank you very much.

Updated October 17, 2018