The U.S. government’s Afghanistan watchdog has opened an inquiry into International Relief and Development’s alleged abuse of staff confidentiality agreements, and suggested the U.S. Agency for International Development take steps to ensure implementing partner employees are not barred from speaking to government officials.
After the issue was reported on Sunday in a Washington Post feature, Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko sent on Monday a letter to IRD President and CEO Arthur Keys. The letter explains SIGAR will look into the organization’s alleged policy of attempting “to use confidentiality agreements as a way of prohibiting its employees from making critical statements about IRD to ‘funding agencies’ or ‘officials of any government’.”
“I am well aware of the courage it takes for employees of government contractors to report waste, fraud, and abuse of government funds,” wrote Sopko. “The threat of retaliation for reporting problems to oversight agencies is all too real. I am simply not willing to tolerate an attempt to institutionalize employee intimidation. Therefore, I am initiating an inquiry into these allegations.”
READ: IRD’s damage control
Bill Pierce, a spokesman for IRD, told Devex, “We’re going to comply fully and completely. We’re going to comply soon and look forward to working with them as they address these issues, which they think exist out there.”
Sopko also sent a concurrent letter to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, in which the special inspector general informs Shah that “IRD’s policy of prohibiting employees from informing government officials of critical information appears to violate the False Claims Act … various federal statutes, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation.”
The watchdog requested the agency consider “notifying all of its contract, cooperative agreement, and grant agreement recipients in Afghanistan that similar efforts to restrict the rights of whistleblowers will not be tolerated,” as well as “inserting a provision in all future contracts, cooperative agreements, and grant agreements for Afghanistan reconstruction that forbids the recipients of federal funds from using confidentiality agreements that prohibit their employees from talking to U.S. government officials.”
In his letter to Keys, Sopko asked the IRD chief to provide answers to four questions to assist the inquiry. Among them: “the number of current and former officers and employees who have been asked to sign this agreement or any similar confidentiality agreement,” and “certification that IRD has notified all current and former officers and employees that any such confidentiality agreement entered into with IRD is prohibited by law and is therefore null and void” by May 19.
But while IRD’s spokesperson said the organization intends to comply with SIGAR’s requests for information, Pierce told Devex the controversy around the confidentiality issue reflects “a real misunderstanding of what’s going on here.”
“These agreements are only, only for employees who receive severance pay as part exiting IRD. This is a very small number of people compared to the total number of employees who’ve ever worked for IRD,” he explained. “In no way shape or form does IRD believe that these in any way would prevent an employee from cooperating with a federal government investigation.”
According to Pierce, IRD’s code of conduct clearly asserts that “you must and should report all instances of waste, fraud and abuse if you believe it’s going on to the appropriate authorities including IRD or the federal government.”
“We want to make it clear as a bell,” the spokesman added, referring to the organization as a “practitioner of best practices.”
SIGAR: Time to review IRD’s confidentiality agreement policy
When asked whether there is any reason to believe a former employee who signed the voluntary confidentiality agreement would be under the impression that document supersedes the code of conduct, Pierce insisted: “We do not believe so, no. And no evidence that employees that [sic] expressed that concern to IRD. The first time we heard about that was through the Washington Post.”
SIGAR’s letter to Keys acknowledges IRD’s statement in the Post article that the organization may review and change its confidentiality agreement policy.
In a similar statement to Devex, the organization said it “has sought the advice of three outside law firms and is changing its policy to ensure that our policies conform to the latest developments in employment law.”
According to Pierce, the voluntary severance agreements IRD currently uses are “fairly standard agreements,” which “came at the recommendation of counsel.”
Queried about whether IRD’s statement that it is changing its policy suggests there is something in the policy that needs to be changed, the spokesman said: “Law evolves … how law is viewed or regulations are viewed today can change over time, and that’s absolutely the case here.”
IRD, he added, has reached out to legal counsel on this current issue and, “the answer came back that [the organization] should probably change [the policy] to be more clear about the fact that this in no way precludes the former employee from participating with, speaking with, and reporting cases of waste, fraud abuse to the appropriate agencies.”
“It’s more about the evolution of law,” Pierce said.
Read more on U.S. aid reform online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.