This is my third consecutive column on your rights in an OIG investigative interview. My first column on this subject discussed whether you have “a legal right” to see the complaint made against you or be told the details of the allegations that comprise the complaint, know the identity of the person who lodged the complaint, or have a right to be represented in the interview by an attorney. In my second column, I explained your right to be informed about whether you were legally obligated to answer OIG questions and how to know when you are legally required or not required to do so. That column essentially explained the difference between a “voluntary” (criminal) interview versus a “compelled” (non-criminal interview) and the tactics in the OIG community to cause confusion about whether you really must answer their questions and the legal consequences associated with answering or not answering questions in a voluntary or compelled interview.
Now I write about another tactic used in the OIG community when interviewing federal employees, whether you are the subject of the investigation or a witness. That tactic is the lie. First, let me remind you that it is essential to tell the truth to the OIG if you elect to answer their questions. Not telling the truth is a felony. It is either perjury (if you are placed under oath) or a false statement under 18 USC 1001 (if not placed under oath), and sometimes both. I’ve seen my share of federal employees prosecuted and sent to prison for not being truthful in an OIG or FBI interview. So if you have any hesitation about being completely truthful to the OIG, get an attorney to assist you in understanding the consequences of your truthful answers or the consequences of not answering questions because you don’t want to provide the OIG with that information.
If you really don’t want to answer questions truthfully to the OIG and the interview is “compelled,” you do have the option of not answering. You do so by resigning. The OIG then loses jurisdiction over you and can no longer “compel” your answers. In deciding whether to actually give up your federal employment rather than truthfully answer questions, consult an attorney. Often the job consequences of truthfully answering the OIG’s expected questions are less severe than you may think.
While you are legally bound to speak truthfully when you talk to the OIG, they are not when they talk to you. Often, OIG agents will lie to you in the interview regardless of whether you are the subject or a witness. Most often, the lie involves describing what another person supposedly told them. It goes like this: “I know you’re telling me that ABC happened, but we spoke with Mary and she says it was XYZ. So one of you is lying.” Most federal workers could not imagine that the OIG would lie to them about some piece of evidence they’ve collected, so the instinct is to accept what the OIG is telling you. It causes great anxiety and confusion for the interviewee to hear that a colleague told the OIG something you believe to be totally false. And that’s why OIG agents use this tactic. Scare tactics supposedly garner confessions. Often it garners a lot of anxious supposition, which OIG agents then try to use to build a case of wrongdoing.
My advice is simple, yet can be difficult. If you know you are telling the truth about something, but the OIG tells you that they spoke to someone else who supposedly told them something you know did not happen or cannot be true, hold your ground and remember they get to lie to you. Don’t fall for it and do be rattled. Stick to your story. It’s hard to do in the heat of an OIG interview, especially if you’re alone without counsel.
Know your rights and protect yourself in what can be a legally uneven playing field.