“The idea that an independent IG can simultaneously be part of the political team that runs an agency they are supposed to oversee is paramount,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit government oversight project.
Elliot’s appointment was the fifth in two months in which Trump, who cut off oversight that he perceived as criticism, replaced a career investigator with an appointment deemed more loyal to the president. In three of the cases, Trump has installed new leadership that is drawn from the top leaders of the authorities who oversee the inspectors̵
For the first time since the system was created following the Watergate scandal, inspectors are under systematic attacks by the president, putting independent oversight of federal spending and operations at risk, since over $ 2 trillion in coronavirus relief rates by the government.
General inspectors, some in acting roles to begin with, have been fired and dismantled without attention and left their staff in disarray, several inspectors general said. Additions to their alarms do not meet several White House nominees waiting for the Senate who will have permanent roles not traditional qualifications for the job.
Some say that the 40-year era of independent supervision of the executive branch is being threatened more than ever.
“The Trump administration is trying to make lap dogs out of watchdogs,” said Gordon Heddell, a former inspector general appointed to review the Labor Department – and later the Department of Defense – by President George W. Bush and who continued to serve in the Obama administration.
The White House did not respond to the request for comment.
Former presidents removed federal watchdogs – but only occasionally. Lately, it has been an almost weekly event, leaving the offices that monitor violations in the government cautious about who might be the next to go.
Elliott’s dual role in the transport department is full of conflicts. Accountants who now work for him oversee the pipeline agency he leads. His manager is Transport Secretary Elaine Chao – whose department he will investigate.
Elliott has said he will withdraw from investigations of the hazardous material division, but supporters in the independent watchdog system said it would not work.
“How could they get a whistle with a straight face?” Said Brian. She noted that inspectors are generally responsible for protecting whistleblowers.
Trump, who often chooses to appoint acting officials for indefinite periods, named Elliott as acting inspector general. His sudden appointment on May 17, which pushed aside the career auditor who led the office in acting, founded an angry response from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“It’s a scandalous and obvious conflict of interest,” said chairman of the House Transportation Committee Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Who has challenged Elliott’s agency in its recent decision to allow freight trains to transport liquefied natural gas.
Removing Mitch Behm and installing Elliott, who spent decades as executive director of the CSX Railroad before joining the Trump administration, was “an unreasonably dangerous and potentially disastrous move,” DeFazio said. Elliott will also withdraw from the railroad surveillance, officials said.
The Watchdog Office in Fiscal 2018 put the Pipeline and Safety Materials Safety Administration on a list of troubled divisions it would oversee.
When announcing a review of the division’s safety culture last year, an assistant inspector general noted that over the past five years, 3,319 US pipeline incidents have caused an average of 15 deaths and 62 injuries each year. In addition to monitoring dangerous rail transport, the division regulates 2.6 million miles of pipelines around the country.
Elliott could also find himself having to investigate his boss.
Prior to his appointment as inspector general, Elliot’s predecessors had been urged by congressional Democrats to investigate whether Chao used his office to provide political benefits to his husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), And whether she had divested enough of international freight interests controlled by her family. It is unclear if these probes will continue.
A spokesman for Chao called accusations of favoritism “a politically motivated waste of time stemming from a false media history.” He said the agency’s ethics officials informed Chao that the stocks did not create a conflict of interest, but she withdrew from all matters relating to the companies and has since sold her investments.
Elliott refused to comment through a spokeswoman.
Expansive view of power
Trump has made no secret of his hostility to federal watchdogs, a number of whom were appointed by President Barack Obama. Trump has publicly condemned them for warning Congress of a whistleblower complaint that triggered his impeachment, reported flaws in his pandemic response and scrutinized the actions of a loyal cabinet member.
Among the biggest defenders of his actions is Attorney General William P. Barr, who told Fox News that the intelligence association’s watchdog surpassed its authority to report inaccuracies when it informed Congress of a bailiff’s complaint about Trump’s cooperation with Ukraine.
Proponents of government surveillance in both parties see a dangerous precedent in this expansive view of presidential power because Trump is doing a quick job of the professionals who have been violent against corruption for four decades – some of them make history. The watchdogs, which oversee 14,000 accountants and investigators across the government, have a broad mandate ranging from routine audits of operations and expenditures to investigations of criminal activity.
They are rarely popular with government leaders, who often complain or are bothered by reports that require corrective action. As Attorney General Michael Horowitz said at a recent US university seminar on government surveillance, the job is as comfortable “as having a barbed wire fence.”
Thirty-eight of the 75 current Director-General for Inspectors are appointed by major agencies, all but one of them, the Special Inspector General for Recovery in Afghanistan, which requires Senate confirmation. The rest are appointed by the heads of small agencies. The appointed ones have no fixed terms and many have served for several years. They occupy an unusual place in the bureaucracy: They are not political appointees who come and go with every administration, nor are they officials with protection against the firing of a president who is angry at his job.
A president can remove a senate-confirmed watchdog. Congress needs to get an explanation, not a legal justification, a loophole that re-resolved the discussion on Capitol Hill about the need to strengthen society against the kind of rapid fire that is going on now.
President Ronald Reagan tried to fire and replace all serving inspectors when he took office in 1981. But he backed down on bipartisan criticism and allowed many of the veterans to stay.
Obama dismissed one during his first term and, like Trump, left several positions without permanent replacement during his term. Congress’s response to Reagan’s and Obama’s actions was swift and strong, with bipartisan complaints directed at the White House.
Over the past four decades, the Directors-General have built up political capital through high-profile achievements, some of which paved the way for reform and led to the discipline of senior officials.
The Naval Inspector General began in 2007 to unveil one of the largest procurement and national security scandals in military history, revealing that Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian port official known as “Fat Leonard,” provided cash, luxury goods and prostitutes to a large number of U.S. officers. seventh fleet. They in turn provided him with classified material on ship movements and information on the navy’s procurement and investigations of the legislation.
The resulting section of the Justice Department provided 33 prosecutions, 22 guilty pleas and an acknowledgment from Francis that his company was subordinating the Navy to $ 35 million.
After a whistleblower claimed that the CIA was involved in “war crimes” using harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, Inspector General John Helgerson initiated a review of a secret program set up after September 11, 2001, to question suspected terrorists. His investigation questioned the effectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation techniques. The Senate investigators later relied on the disclosures as they investigated the use of torture in a 7,000-page investigation.
“I don’t think you can exaggerate the importance of aggressive and independent inspector generals,” said Daniel J. Jones, Senate lead investigator on “torture report.” His role in the investigation was recalled in last year’s film “The Report.”
The Trump era has also raised high profile targets from several Cabinet secretaries imprisoned in travel scandals to Horowitz’s review of applications made by the FBI to the foreign intelligence supervisor during his investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
Among the most important measures taken by a watchdog was Michael Atkinson, the secretary general of the intelligence community who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s violence. Trump, who had appointed Atkinson, dismissed him in April.
Atkinson was replaced by actor Thomas Monheim, who took time off from his job as director general of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, one of the departments his office now oversees for wrongdoing.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to fire the agency’s actors at the beginning of last year general, which reviewed its role in promoting profit-making colleges and installing its Deputy Director-General. The plan was run after a scream from Congressional Democrats.
Fires rattle watchdogs
When asked last week why he dismissed Steve Linick, the well-regarded Secretary-General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trump said: “I have the absolute right as president to resign.” It’s true. However, his dismissals violated a standard for independent review established over four decades.
Four days after shrugging off Atkinson, Trump removed the acting Secretary of Defense, Glenn Fine, from a new role as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, created to oversee spending for relief.
Three weeks later, Trump pushed aside Christi Grimm as the best watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services after she released a report revealing hospital fighters to get basic supplies during the pandemic. Then Trump shot Linick, 24 hours before demoting the Behm at the transport department, on the recommendation of State Secretary Mike Pompeo.
Congressional Democrats say Linick investigated Pompeo’s abuse of department personnel and had been asked to review his efforts to use a declaration of emergency to justify the $ 8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo complained to the president and asked him to remove Linick.
Linick’s replacement will also be responsible for investigating himself, and he has made no efforts to refuse. Stephen Ackard, a political appointee and an ally of Vice President Pence, retains his position as head of the State Department’s foreign mission, another conflict decided by the congressional Democrats.
The office supports more than 800 US embassies and consular offices around the world, operations that are routinely reviewed. A few months before Ackard took over the Office of Foreign Missions last year, Linick’s staff issued a striking report citing vacancies and management shortcomings in the office.
The State Department did not respond to the request for comment.
Fuels have ravaged the community of federal watchdogs, who have promised their staffs that they will not be back on tough investigations. But there is deep anxiety in their rank, according to four inspectors who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.
The first the wave of Trump-nominated Senate confirmed for watchdog roles had traditional resumes for the job, either lead large staffs or work their way up through the inspector general community. But recent nominees for high-profile general offices for inspectors, including at the Department of Defense, HHS and CIA, have much less leadership experience. They lack a deep background in scrutiny or investigations, and raise concerns about whether they can succeed in roles they may not be prepared for, according to four current watchdogs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
After Trump abolished Fine at the Department of Defense, the government’s largest watchdog office, he appointed Sean O’Donnell to lead it on an acting basis. O’Donnell, a former attorney for the Department of Justice, had served only four months as director general of the Environmental Protection Agency when the White House told him he would run both offices.
In the past, inspectors generally received bipartisan support. But most Republicans have been silenced after Trump’s recent actions or joined in presidential criticism.
The Senate Democrats joined the House members to demand restrictions on a future president’s power to fire CEOs. The latest pandemic bill proposed by the House contains language that would limit the removal of a watchdog to neglect of customs or ill-treatment.
“Where are my Republican colleagues?” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) Asked on the floor last week when he condemned the move. “They are so scared of President Trump, they are almost stuck on his ankles.”
When Schumer spoke, Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) released a letter to the president asking for an explanation of Linick’s removal. Grassley, the inspector general, wrote: “should be free from partisan political interference from either executive or legislative branch.” Late. Rome Romney (R-Utah) also raised the issue of fuels, citing “a threat to responsible democracy and a crack in the constitutional balance of power“In a tweet after Linick’s removal.
But as of last week, no Republican had joined the Democrats to demand a permanent measure to give inspectors more protection.