February 11, 2019
Inspectors General (IGs) play a key role as internal agency watchdogs that help the public and Congress promote ethics and accountability in our government. In just the last month, IGs have provided crucial information to the public, from the true number of families separated at the southern border, to the General Service Administration’s “improper” failure to consider constitutional issues related to the government’s lease with the Trump Organization for the President’s DC hotel. Given the importance of IGs in curbing ethical abuses by the Trump administration, it should come as no surprise that the President has allowed many of these positions to remain vacant and nominated cronies in other cases.
Six months ago, there were 13 IG vacancies across the federal agencies. Since then, that number has only reduced by one. Currently there are 12 IG vacancies at executive branch agencies, including five that have lasted the entire duration of Donald Trump’s presidency. Agencies currently without a permanent IG include, among others, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which each raise particular concerns. In January, CREW filed an ethics complaint against Acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler for conflicts of interest arising from his prior work as a coal industry lobbyist. Last fall, OPM’s most recent Director, Jeff Pon, resigned suddenly and without explanation less than 7 months after his confirmation. Having an independent, Senate-confirmed Inspector General at EPA, OPM, and other agencies, is critical to ensuring that questions regarding their operations are thoroughly reviewed and that, if necessary, long-term reforms can be implemented. While there remain dedicated individuals who serve as acting IGs across the federal government, as Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) has noted, “[e]ven the best acting Inspector General lacks the standing to make lasting changes needed to improve his or her office.”
President Trump’s commitment to installing permanent, independent IGs has been questionable from the start. Early in his presidency, Trump withdrew the nominations of four IG candidates pending before the Senate, including at OPM. He did ultimately re-submit one of those names, Robert Storch, to the Senate and Storch was confirmed as National Security Agency IG in December 2017. In the summer of 2018, Christopher Sharpley, President Trump’s nominee for Inspector General of the Central Intelligence Agency, withdrew his own name from consideration after former colleagues alleged that he retaliated against whistleblowers in the office. The President has yet to nominate anyone else for the job.
Even more troubling than the IG vacancies that the President has allowed to persist, have been the attempts to install political cronies as “independent” Inspectors General. These appointments raise concern that the administration is handpicking loyalists, rather than outside watchdogs, to oversee their work. For example, in October 2018, multiple outlets reported that Suzanne Israel Tufts, a senior Trump political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), would be named IG at the Department of Interior. Following these reports, former Department of Justice IG Michael Bromwich tweeted that “politicizing the oversight function” in this way was “dangerous.” Interior denied the report of Tufts’ appointment and after public outcry, she resigned her post at HUD. In November 2018, Department of Education Inspector General Kathy Tighe retired from government service and Tighe’s deputy became the acting head of the office, per the agency’s usual line of succession for the position. Shortly thereafter, however, the White House and the Education Department informed the IG’s office that the Department’s Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt would replace the acting IG effective immediately. Following public reporting and congressional scrutiny, the administration was once again forced to walk back a highly questionable IG appointment.
That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been some measure of progress. In January, President Trump finally nominated someone to fill the longest standing IG vacancy in the federal government, at the Department of Interior. As it happens, the nominee for that position, Mark Greenblatt, was previously under consideration for the second-longest standing IG vacancy, at the Export-Import Bank (ExIm Bank). Greenblatt was not confirmed by the Senate for the ExIm Bank post during the 115th Congress and the President has yet to nominate anyone else for that position. In addition to Greenblatt’s nomination, President Trump also nominated Joseph Cuffari to serve as the IG at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Given the ethics concerns raised by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, his proposed successor, David Bernhardt, and DHS’s failure to create and maintain records regarding its child separation policy at the border, both agencies need a permanent IG to promote ethical compliance and transparency. Despite these nominations, and the Senate’s confirmation of Rae Oliver Davis as HUD’s Inspector General in January, there remain numerous IG positions that need to be permanently filled.
IGs perform a vital function in our government by providing oversight of ethics and accountability failings by federal agencies. Without independent and permanent leaders in these positions it is harder for the public and Congress to root out waste and abuse. If the President is allowed to leave these posts vacant, or worse, to install political cronies as IGs, then corruption and incompetence will continue to undermine the efficacy of our government.