“The idea that an independent IG could also be part of the political team that runs an agency they are supposed to oversee is absurd,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit government supervision project.
Elliott’s appointment was the fifth in two months that Trump replaced a candidate he considered more critical with one he considered more loyal. In three cases, Trump has appointed a new leadership that comes from the leadership positions of the agencies overseen by the Inspector General.
For the first time since the system was introduced after the Watergate scandal, inspectors have been systematically attacked by the president, jeopardizing independent government oversight of over $ 2 trillion in government spending on coronavirus aid.
Inspectors-general, some of whom initially played a role, were dismissed and downgraded without notice, leaving their staff in a mess, several inspectors-general said. In addition to their concerns, several White House candidates awaiting a Senate review for permanent roles do not meet traditional job qualifications.
Some say that the 40-year era of independent executive oversight is under threat more than ever.
“The Trump administration is trying to turn guard dogs into lap dogs,”
The White House did not respond to requests for comments.
Former presidents removed federal watchdogs – but only occasionally. Lately, it has been an almost weekly event where the offices that monitor the misconduct across the government are not sure who might be next.
Elliott’s dual role in the transportation department is full of conflict. Auditors who are now working for him monitor the pipeline agency that he heads. His boss is the Minister of Transport, Elaine Chao, whose department he is to investigate.
Elliott said he would withdraw from investigations into the hazardous materials department, but supporters of the independent watchdog system said that this would not work.
“How could you get whistleblower disclosures with a straight face?” Brian said. She noted that inspectors-general are responsible for the protection of whistleblowers.
Trump, who often chooses to appoint incumbents indefinitely, appointed Elliott as incumbent inspector general. His sudden appointment on May 17, which pushed the auditor who led the drama-based office aside, sparked an angry reaction from the Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“It is an outrageous and obvious conflict of interest,” said Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Chairman of the House Transportation Committee that interviewed Elliott’s agency about its recent decision to allow freight trains to transport liquefied natural gas.
Removing Mitch Behm and installing Elliott, who had been a senior executive at CSX Railroad for decades before moving to the Trump administration, was “an indiscriminately dangerous and potentially catastrophic move,” DeFazio said. Elliott will also withdraw from oversight of the railroad, officials said.
The monitoring office in the 2018 financial year placed the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on a list of the problematic departments it monitored.
When announcing an audit of the department’s security culture last year, a deputy inspector general found that 3,319 pipeline incidents in the United States have caused an average of 15 deaths and 62 injuries per year in the past five years. In addition to monitoring dangerous shipments by rail, the division controls 2.6 million miles of pipelines across the country.
Elliott also found that he had to examine his boss.
Prior to being appointed Inspector General, Congress Democrats had asked Elliott’s predecessor to investigate whether Chao was using her office to provide political benefits to her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), And whether they were sufficient separate from international society had controlled shipping interests from her family. It is unclear whether these probes will continue.
A Chao spokesman called allegations of preference “a politically motivated waste of time resulting from a false media history”. He said the agency’s ethics officials had told Chao that the stocks did not conflict of interest, but she has withdrawn from all corporate affairs and has since sold her investments.
Elliott declined to comment on a spokeswoman.
Wide view of power
Trump has made no secret of his hostility to federal guards, some of whom were appointed by President Barack Obama. Trump has publicly denounced them for drawing Congress attention to a whistleblower complaint that triggered his impeachment, reporting deficiencies in his pandemic response, and investigating the actions of a loyal cabinet member.
One of the main defenders of his actions was Attorney General William P. Barr, who told Fox News that the intelligence watchdog had exceeded its misconduct authority when it informed Congress of a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Proponents of government oversight in both parties see a dangerous precedent in this expansive view of the president’s power Trump is quick to work with the professionals who have been bulwarks against corruption for four decades – some of whom are making history. The watchdogs, which oversee 14,000 inspectors and investigators across the government, have a broad mandate, ranging from routine checks of operations and expenses to investigations into criminal activity.
They are rarely popular with heads of government who complain frequently or are ashamed of reports calling for corrective action. As the inspector general of the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, said recently at a seminar at the American University on government supervisionthe jobs are as convenient as “on a barbed wire fence”.
Thirty-eight of the currently 75 inspectors-general are presidential candidates in large agencies, all but one of whom, the Special Inspector General for the Restoration of Afghanistan, require confirmation from the Senate. The rest are named by the heads of small agencies. The appointed people have no fixed conditions and many have served for years. They occupy an unusual place in the bureaucracy: they are neither political representatives who come and go with every government, nor officials who are protected from the dismissal of a president who is upset with their work.
A president can remove a watchdog approved by the Senate. Congress needs to get a statement, not a legal justification, a loophole that sparked the discussion on Capitol Hill about the need to strengthen the community against the kind of rapid-fire layoffs that are taking place.
President Ronald Reagan attempted to fire and replace all incumbent general inspectors when he took office in 1981. However, after bipartisan criticism, he resigned and allowed many veterans to stay.
Obama fired one in his first term and, like Trump, left several positions during his tenure without permanent replacement. Congress’s response to Reagan and Obama’s actions was quick and strong, and bipartisan complaints were directed against the White House.
Over the past four decades, inspectors-general have built political capital through high-profile achievements, some of which paved the way for reform and disciplined top officials.
The Naval Inspector General began in 2007 to uncover one of the largest treaty and national security scandals in military history, and revealed that Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian port official named Fat Leonard, provided officers with large amounts of cash, luxury goods and prostitutes the seventh U.S. fleet. They in turn gave him classified material about ship movements and information about naval contract and law enforcement investigations.
The resulting Department of Justice investigation resulted in 33 charges, 22 pleadings of guilt and Francis’ admission that his company had charged the Navy with $ 35 million.
After a whistleblower claimed that the CIA was involved in “war crimes” using tough interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists, Inspector General John Helgerson began reviewing a secret program that had been set up after the September 11, 2001 attacks question suspected terrorists. His research questioned the effectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation techniques. Senate investigators later relied on the revelations when they investigated the use of torture in a 7,000-page investigation.
“I don’t think you can overstate the importance of aggressive and independent general inspectors,” said Daniel J. Jones, senior investigator of the Senate’s “Torture Report”. His role in the investigation was recorded in last year’s film “The Report”.
The Trump era has also brought high-profile goals, from several cabinet secretaries involved in travel scandals to Horowitz’s review of the FBI’s applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
One of the watchdog’s key actions was that of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of intelligence, who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump, who had appointed Atkinson, released him in April.
Atkinson was replaced as an actor by Thomas Monheim, who retired from serving as General Counsel of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, one of the departments his office is currently monitoring for misconduct.
Education minister Betsy DeVos tried to fire her agency’s current inspector earlier last year Generalwho questioned her role in promoting nonprofit universities and set up her deputy general counsel. The plan was sunk after an outcry from Congress- Democrats.
When asked last week why he had fired Steve Linick, the respected Inspector General of the State Department, Trump said: “I have the absolute right to resign as President.” That’s true. However, his layoffs violated a norm of independent control founded over four decades.
Four days after the Atkinson settlement, Trump removed Department of Defense Inspector General Glenn Fine from a new role as Chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which was created to monitor aid spending.
Three weeks later, Trump pushed Christ Grimm as the top watchdog in the Department of Health and Human Services aside after publishing a report exposing the struggles of hospitals over primary care during the pandemic. Then Trump fired Linick, 24 hours before Behm’s downgrading in the transportation department, on the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
According to Congress Democrats, Linick investigated Pompeo for abuse of departmental personnel and was asked to review his efforts to use an emergency statement to justify the sale of $ 8 billion weapons to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo complained to the president and asked him to remove Linick.
Linick’s successor will also be responsible for examining himself, and he has made no effort to reject him. Stephen Ackard, a political representative and ally of Vice President Pence, will continue to serve as head of the State Department’s Foreign Missions Office, another conflict condemned by Congress Democrats.
The office supports more than 800 US embassies and consular offices around the world, Operations that are routinely checked. A few months before Ackard took over overseas office last year, Linick employees issued a powerful report citing job vacancies and management errors in the office.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comments.
The layoffs have shaken the community of federal guards who have promised their employees that they will not resort to tough investigations. But there is deep fear in their ranksAccording to four inspectors-general who discussed sensitive issues on condition of anonymity.
The first A wave of Trump nominees confirmed by the Senate Watchdog Roles had traditional resumes for the jobThey either lead large employees or work their way up through the general inspector community. However, the youngest candidates for senior general inspectors, including the Department of Defense, HHS and the CIA, have far less leadership experience. According to four current guard dogs who spoke anonymously to speak frankly, they lack a deep background in testing or investigation and are concerned about whether they can succeed in roles that they may not be prepared for.
After downgrading in the Department of Defense, the government’s largest surveillance office, Trump appointed Sean O’Donnell to run it on an acting basis. O’Donnell, a former Justice Attorney, had only served as General Inspector of the Environmental Protection Agency for four months when the White House told him he would run both offices.
In the past, inspectors-general have received cross-party support. But most Republicans have been muted or joined the president’s criticism after Trump’s recent actions.
The Senate Democrats, along with members of the House of Representatives, have called for a future president to be limited in his powers to fire general inspectors. The latest pandemic relief law passed by the house contains a language that would limit the removal of a watchdog to breach of duty or misconduct.
“Where are my republican colleagues?” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) asked on the floor last week when he denounced the moves. “They are so afraid of President Trump that they almost cling to his ankles.”
As Schumer spoke, Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) published a letter to the President asking for an explanation for Linick’s removal. The Inspector General, Grassley wrote, “should be free from any partisan interference from the executive or the legislature.” Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also questioned the layoffs and cited “a threat to responsible democracy and a crack in the constitutional balance of powerIn a tweet after Linick’s removal.
But until last week, no Republicans, along with the Democrats, had asked for a permanent solution to offer the General Inspectors more protection.