U.S. Courts: The Judiciary Should Improve Its Policies on Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Investigations

GAO-23-105942 Published: Nov 16, 2022. Publicly Released: Nov 16, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The federal judiciary investigates fraud, waste, and abuse allegations to hold its judges and staff accountable for their conduct as government officials and managers of public resources.

But federal judiciary policies for addressing alleged fraud, waste, and abuse don't fully align with investigative best practices on establishing documented procedures and ensuring independence. For example, investigations are referred to the same unit from which the allegations originated—raising concern about independence and transparency.

We recommended that an independent office be created to carry out the judiciary's fraud, waste, and abuse program.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The federal judiciary's policies for addressing allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse do not fully align with leading investigative guidance on establishing documented procedures and ensuring independence. For example:

  • The judiciary's policies do not require all components with responsibility for addressing fraud, waste, and abuse allegations to establish relevant documented procedures. The policies encourage, but do not require, court units and federal public defender organizations to establish a process for resolving fraud, waste, and abuse allegations. The policies also do not require these components to document the process they establish. Officials in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts attributed the lack of a requirement to document these processes to the chief judge of a court having the authority and responsibility for ensuring that such allegations are appropriately addressed. However, the lack of such a requirement increases the likelihood that components are not documenting their processes and that process inconsistencies exist among components.
  • The judiciary's policies do not ensure independence in investigations. By policy, the Administrative Office is to refer allegations to the component from which they originated (e.g., allegations about a court are to be referred to the chief judge of the court and addressed by local procedures). In such instances, nothing in documented policy prohibits individuals from being assigned to investigate employees with whom they have a close relationship, which raises concerns about independence in the investigations.

The Judiciary's Referral Process for a Court Employee's Fraud, Waste, or Abuse Allegation

The Judiciary's Referral Process for a Court Employee's Fraud, Waste, or Abuse Allegation

Establishing an independent entity to carry out the judiciary's fraud, waste, and abuse program would help to address threats to independence in such investigations. However, Administrative Office officials stated that the judiciary believes establishing such an entity would interfere with the internal governance and independence of the judicial branch. Such an entity would not have to interfere with this branch's independence. Instead, the entity—which could be an office—could be located within the Administrative Office but outside of its reporting structure. This would help to reduce threats to its independence and help ensure accountability over the judiciary's operations.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal judiciary consists of a system of courts that is responsible for ensuring the fair administration of justice. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts provides support services (e.g., legal, IT) to federal courts.

The judiciary's fraud, waste, and abuse investigation program is intended to help hold judiciary staff responsible for their conduct as government officials and for the management of public resources. Management of this program is decentralized, with the Administrative Office and components throughout the judicial branch (e.g., courts) having various responsibilities.

GAO was asked to review the federal judiciary's policies for addressing fraud, waste, and abuse. This report evaluates the extent to which the judiciary's policies for addressing fraud, waste, and abuse align with leading investigative guidance, among other things. To do so, GAO assessed documentation and interviewed Administrative Office officials to compare judicial policies against leading investigative practices identified by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

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Recommendations

GAO is making eight recommendations, including that the Administrative Office establish an independent office to carry out the judiciary's fraud, waste, and abuse program. The Administrative Office said it would consider the recommendations as part of its efforts to further develop the program. As discussed in the report, GAO maintains the recommendations are appropriate and necessary.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should work with the Judicial Conference to ensure that all relevant judicial components with responsibility for addressing fraud, waste, and abuse allegations have established documented processes for addressing such allegations. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should track, or otherwise ensure that AO is aware of, the documented processes that relevant judicial components have established to address fraud, waste, and abuse allegations. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should analyze the consistency among the documented processes that relevant judicial components have established to address fraud, waste, and abuse allegations. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should establish an independent office within AO to carry out the judiciary's fraud, waste, and abuse program and to investigate and resolve fraud, waste, or abuse allegations regarding AO staff and operations. The Director should also ensure that this office does not have other responsibilities outside of fraud, waste, and abuse investigations that create the perception of management participation threats to independence in investigations. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should work with the Judicial Conference to identify and implement, as appropriate, solutions for ensuring relevant judicial branch components conduct independent fraud, waste, and abuse investigations. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should update the agency's fraud, waste, and abuse policy and procedures, as appropriate, to provide specific details on how to conduct and document investigations, in alignment with leading investigative guidance. As part of this update, the Director should develop written guidance that specifies what allegation and investigative data should be tracked, and where and how it should be tracked. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should consider potential solutions for storing fraud, waste, and abuse allegation data and implement a solution that allows for the efficient and effective analysis of these data. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should analyze the fraud, waste, and abuse allegation and investigation data reported to AO to identify patterns and trends. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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