Are there such things as public inquiries in the United States?
If you do not hold public inquiries, how can the public become
informed about the true facts and circumstances of of a matter where
there is great public concern, rather than for rumour and conspiracy
theory to arise?
Ad hoc inquiries of significant events and issues do happen in the United States, although the naming of such investigations is not standardized. There are myriad institutions that conduct them and there is not a settled practice for doing so.
This said, the U.S. is probably more subject to rumor and conspiracy theories than the U.K., and distrust of historically authoritative sources of information by government officials, official inquiries, main stream media sources, and academia, is at an all time low in the U.S. for about 30-40% of Americans (mostly on the political right). Few people would claim that the U.S. political system is particularly good at public inquiries and at providing public information that quells rumors and conspiracy theories.
This diversity of inquiry methods is, in part, because the U.S. federal system of government is much more complicated with many more independent parts than the U.K. government, and in part, this is a function of the lack of a fused legislative and executive in a parliamentary system that leads to greater distrust and less uniformity.
Most legislatures have investigations by committees in their subject matter areas, and sometimes ad hoc committees for novel or particular events (such as the current Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capital in the U.S. House).
There is an agency in the federal government called the GAO (originally the "General Accounting Office" and now the "General Accountability Office") that conducts such inquiries as do units in the Justice Department and an Investigator-General's office in each cabinet level department in the federal government. Most states have a "state auditor" whose job is to conduct such inquires which is shared with the state attorney general and often a state bureau of investigation. Some cities, such as the City and County of Denver, Colorado also have their own auditor's office which conducts inquires as needed.
The federal government, and many state governments, have provisions for the appointment of a "Special Counsel" to investigate something.
Many media companies (e.g. newspapers and TV news outlets) conduct investigations, individually or as part of a joint effort of multiple media companies. Academic institutions and professional organizations (e.g. the American Bar Association) or teams of investigators at multiple academic institutions and professional organizations sometimes conduct investigations, inquiries and conferences about matters of public concern. Advocacy organizations (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center) also sometimes conduct such investigations.
Some matters generate multiple inquiries. For example, in the wake of a recent controversy alleging corrupt conduct in Colorado's judicial branch, the judiciary commissioned two independent investigative firms, as did the FBI, the state auditor’s office, the Attorney Regulation Counsel that disciplines lawyers and the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline.
Sometimes, a sitting or retired ex-judge is appointed by a court as a special master, to apprise the court of evidence that its either cumbersome for it to review, or that it shouldn't personally see.
Historically, grand juries have been convened for this kind of broad ranging investigation, although this practice has largely fallen into dessitude. But, county-level civil grand juries in California, for example, still retain this function.
Grand juries are also the most common way that law enforcement officer involved shootings are investigated.
Inquiries into transportation accidents other than traffic accidents involving cars and trucks are generally conducted in the United States by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
When investigations are done by a body other than a committee of a legislature, at the behest of the executive branch, the legislative branch, or both, this is often called an investigative commission. Some examples would include:
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (9/11 Commission) (2002)
Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (2009)
Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (“Moynihan Commission”) (1994)
National Commission on Terrorism (1998)
National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community (2010)
National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office (2000)
The Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States (see also here).
The members are typically distinguished "elder statesmen", current or former judges, and leading academics in a relevant field.
The U.S. military has a similar institution called a Board of Inquiry, that is usually staffed with senior, but not top level, military officers, rather than judges.
Likewise, sometimes an inquiry is conducted by a coroner's office, which sometimes convenes a coroner's jury, to assist it in this task, although this practice too is rare (although California has utilized them as recently as 2018).
The Center for Disease Control conducted an official inquiry with a partially declassified report regarding the origins of the COVID-19 virus, as did the World Health Organization of the United Nations (separately) with a separate body called the Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) formed for that purpose.
Sometimes these commissions are created to propose solutions when the people proposing the commissions actually want solutions or greater understanding, and sometimes these commissions are created as a consolation prize to defer action on a problem that the people with the power to act are not willing to take yet to address serious complaints or concerns raised by legislators or activists pressing for action.
A variety of inquiries into the accuracy of the 2020 election results were conducted by election boards, by political party or activist supported "audits" (see, e.g. Arizona and Pennsylvania), by independent media outlets of various types, and by courts in connection with litigation of these results.
Sometimes private lawsuits by brought by attorneys for victims of a particular incident that give rise to public trials provide the public with insight into an event.
Sometimes international human rights organizations and U.N. Agencies conduct investigations and inquiries of these kinds (e.g. Inter-American Human Rights Organization conducted an inquiry into the events surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales in which local police in Colorado despite receiving clear warnings of imminent tragedy declined to enforce a protective order causing the children protected by that order to be killed by their father).
And if so, why is it that no such inquiry has been called for in this
instance? Or has it?
In the Epstein case involving leniency in connection with criminal charges in Florida, in early August of 2019, "Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a state criminal investigation on Tuesday into the plea agreement that allowed Jeffrey Epstein to skirt federal prosecution for soliciting prostitution from underage girls in 2007." This state probe released a report in May of 2021 exonerating the officials involved.
The U.S. Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility also conducted a separate inquiry into this matter at the request of a U.S. Senator. The same link note that lawyers for the victims in that case have investigated and pursued the matter, and that the Miami Herald newspaper conducted an investigation which led to the calls for the Florida and U.S. Justice Department inquiries.