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Senate Panel To Examine Role of E.D.'s Watchdog

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Washington--The independence of the Education Department's inspector general is being threatened by department officials' refusal to allow him to retain his own staff lawyers, a Congressional aide and a department official said last week.

The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs will focus on that issue when Inspector General James B. Thomas testifies at a July 17 hearing, a committee aide said.

"The i.g.'s role is to be the agency's watchdog, and if he has to go to the general counsel's office for legal rulings, that's a problem,'' the aide explained.

Associate Inspector General Gretchen C. Schwarz confirmed that Mr. Thomas has sought to retain his own legal counsel to protect his independence, but has been thwarted by other department officials.

She declined to comment further, and said that other department officials also would have no comment.

The Senate panel last week held the first in a series of oversight hear4ings on the government's inspectors general, focusing primarily on a Justice Department policy that limits the officials' jurisdiction.

Several inspectors general testified that the policy, which bars them from investigating private individuals or groups that do not receive federal funds, has caused many instances of alleged fraud and regulatory violations to go uninvestigated.

In a letter to the committee, Mr. Thomas said the policy has not affected his office.

The Education Department imposes no restrictions on individuals or institutions unless they receive federal funds, and it issues no licenses. The only type of case cited at the hearing that could occur at ed is one in which an individual poses as a department official to defraud others.

Most of Mr. Thomas's letter, which does not address the issue of independent counsel, is devoted to arguments that his office's investigators should have law-enforcement powers and permission to carry firearms.

He supported a bill, S 2080, that would give those powers to agents employed by inspectors general.

The current restrictions force such officials to rely on agencies such as the f.b.i. to serve warrants and make arrests, he said, and often endanger investigators pursuing an alleged wrongdoer.

Subjects of fraud investigations often live in "some of the worst neighborhoods in major cities," Mr. Thomas wrote. "These are high-crime areas where drug users and dealers conduct business and anyone appearing to represent the law is at risk."

Mr. Thomas said he "live[s] in fear" that an investigator will be killed or seriously injured.

He attached a stack of memoranda from agents recounting instances in which their safety or the success of an investigation had been threatened by their lack of authority or weaponry.

For example, a supervisor in the Los Angeles field office cited instances in which unarmed agents searched "school premises" in a high-crime area accompanied by state investigators clad in body armor.

The supervisor also noted that an interview subject accused of using false identities to obtain student loans struck a police officer and fled.

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