There is no uniform definition or process involved in a federal investigation, a catch-all term that encompasses a multitude of activities. A very significant share of all federal government activity involves conducting investigations and similar tasks such as "studies", "inspections", "inquests" and "audits".
Who Commences An Investigation
In the executive branch, investigations are usually begun when someone who either has the express authority to conduct investigations, or has control over resources sufficient to conduct investigations, does so, sometimes at the request of an outsider and sometimes on the official's own initiative. In some agencies (for example, the IRS) the process of commencing an investigation (for example, of a taxpayer) is very formal, and in others, it is ad hoc or primarily complaint based.
In Congress or in committees with investigative powers, the decision to investigate is usually made either by the committee chair or by a vote of the committee, or by legislation, all of which require majority support to initiate.
Some investigations (e.g. background investigations of people seeking a security clearance, plane crash investigation by the NTSB, computerized arithmetic reviews of tax returns filed by the IRS) are mandated as a matter of course by a statute, regulation or standing order in every case meeting its criteria, or on a randomized basis (e.g. bankruptcy case and tax audits).
Who Conducts Federal Investigations And How
Different kinds of investigators have different powers that sometimes also depend upon the nature of the investigation.
Many regulatory agencies and most prosecuting attorneys in the federal government have the authority to issue subpoenas, audits or requests for information for the purpose of investigating possible violations of the law prior to commencing litigation over an actual alleged violation of the law. Some agencies also have the right to request search warrants and wire taps, to access information in databases not available to members of the general public, and to enter onto premises to which the general public is not allowed to have access as a matter of course (e.g. an elevator inspect in the General Services Administration may have access to behind the scenes elevator equipment not available to the general public).
Sometimes investigations are conducted only by attorneys, by non-attorney investigators under the supervision of attorneys, or only by non-attorney investigators or administrators. Some investigators have conducting investigations as their primary or sole job responsibility, while other administrations may conduct investigations as part of a variety of job responsibilities. Investigations can be both military and civilians or both. When more than one agency is involved in an investigation it is normally called a "joint investigation".
For example, FBI agents usually exclusively conduct investigations, while Assistant U.S. Attorneys usually both supervise investigations and bring legal action based upon what an investigation reveals.
Most federal government agencies also have an "investigator-general" who has the authority to compel the cooperation of employees and contractors in a government agency in providing information to determine if the agency has engaged in any improper conduct.
This authority is shared by Congressional Committees, the General Accountability Office (GAO) formerly known as the General Accounting Office of Congress, and by grand juries, judicial conduct and attorney conduct committees and certain officials in the administrative office of the Courts (which reports to the Chief Justice of the United States).
Sometimes an ad hoc or special investigator can be appointed by a federal agency or a court or Congress, such as special prosecutors Robert Mueller and Kenneth Starr.
Some agencies have more formalized procedures than others. Not all investigations require the use of compulsory testimony, although almost all would have one or more people assigned to conduct the investigation.
Federal criminal statutes also allow for the prosecution of people who provide false information to a variety of kinds of federal investigators, and sometimes also to people who fail to cooperate with, or at least, obstruct, certain kinds of federal investigations.
An example of a fairly formal investigation process would be the National Transportation Safety Board's process for investigating transportation accidents.
An informal investigation might simply consist of an administrator in an agency asking his or her subordinates what happened and asking them to locate relative documents from their own files, voluntary statements and publicly available information related to a question.
How Does An Investigation End?
An investigation typically ends with either the issuance of an oral and/or written report (sometimes in letter form) or with the closing of the investigation without a report by the person who convened it, by the person conducting it, or by operation of law due to the end of the mandate authorizing the report (e.g. Congressional investigations end at the end of each two year Congressional session).
Sometimes a report will make recommendations or reach formal conclusions (sometimes with minority reports if a group is conducting the investigation) and sometimes, the reports, will simply be informational.
In the federal government, it isn't uncommon for all or part of a report to be confidential or restricted in access, either for national security reasons or for privacy reasons.
Legal Actions To Enforce Laws Distinguished
An investigation is distinct from a prosecution or civil lawsuit in which relief is sought as a consequence of someone's actions from a court or a quasi-judicial body (e.g. a legislative chamber considering impeaching a government official), and would usually precede a prosecution or civil lawsuit.