By Linnaea Honl-Stuenkel
March 14, 2019

For the second time in 2019, CREW filed an ethics complaint against the head of a cabinet-level agency without a permanent watchdog in its Office of Inspector General. Given President Trump’s well-documented ethics failings, it’s no surprise he has allowed 12 Inspector General (IG) positions to remain vacant despite mounting ethics scandals. News of an increased number of sexual assault victim reprisal cases that fall under DOD IG’s responsibility, and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s recent ethics questions make the DOD IG’s role particularly important, yet President Trump has allowed the vacancy to persist for more than three years.

Earlier this week, CREW filed an ethics complaint with DOD Acting IG Glenn Fine asking for an investigation into whether Shanahan violated ethics rules and his ethics pledge. Shanahan reportedly praised Boeing, his former employer of 30 years, and derided competitor Lockheed Martin, in discussions about government contracts and DOD’s budget.

While Shanahan is rumored to be nominated for a permanent position as Defense Secretary, Fine has been Acting IG at DOD for more than three years–since January 10, 2016. In February 2017, President Trump withdrew Fine’s name from consideration for the permanent role, without explanation. Mr. Fine previously served as Inspector General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) from 2000 to 2011 spanning both the Bush and Obama administrations.  Despite these credentials, President Trump has failed to nominate Fine or anyone else as a permanent IG at DOD.

Beyond illustrating President Trump’s lax approach to government ethics, prolonged IG vacancies can undermine the efficacy of their work. In a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, three IGs expressed concern about the authority of acting IGs, with one explaining that “[n]ot having the full backing of the President, nor confirmation of the Senate, does not provide an even playing field.” Recent efforts to subvert the authority of acting IGs at the Departments of Education and Homeland Security show that they may be vulnerable to insubordination and influence in ways that permanent IGs are not.

The DOD IG vacancy is particularly concerning given another recent GAO report that found that the office needs to better protect DOD whistleblowers and resolve cases more quickly. It also found that about 85 percent of all DOD IG investigations “did not meet the timeliness goals.” To account for the delays, DOD pointed to “the increasing scope and complexity of investigations” and the fact that sexual assault victim reprisal cases now fall under the DOD IG whistleblower reprisal investigations unit. Such cases have increased 98% percent in the past 5 years. While there is no reason to believe that the concerns raised in the report are tied to the fact that DOD has been without a permanent IG for the past three years, they show the importance of the role and the urgency that the IG office be adequately staffed.

President Trump has been extremely slow to fill IG positions, and DOD is just the latest example of ethics problems at an agency that lacks a permanent IG. In January, CREW filed a complaint against then-Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler for similar possible violations of his ethics pledge. There has been an IG vacancy at EPA since October 2018, and like at DOD, President Trump has not yet nominated a permanent watchdog.

Each of the 12 inspector general vacancies in federal agencies should be filled without delay.  President Trump has allowed too many of these positions to remain vacant for too long. While we have confidence in Acting Inspectors General and their staffs, permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership bolsters stability and independence of the offices in critical ways. As these vacancies persist, the stakes remain high, and ethics concerns only continue to grow.