May 18, 2020
President Trump’s decision to oust the acting Inspector General at the Department of Transportation is yet another example of his attacks on independent oversight. Both the new acting IG and Trump’s nominee to permanently fill the post both have questions concerning their political ties that could make it difficult for them to conduct independent oversight.
Since 2019, the DOT OIG has been investigating DOT Secretary Elaine Chao for alleged political favoritism benefiting her husband Senator Mitch McConnell as he faces reelection. However, the DOT hasn’t had a permanent Inspector General since January. On Friday, May 15, 2020, Trump announced his nomination for DOT IG was Justice Department trial lawyer Eric Soskin who was “involved in some hot-button immigration and civil rights cases.”
In the interim, Trump also replaced the Acting IG Mitch Behm, who is highly regarded in the IG community, with Howard “Skip” Elliott. Elliot is a political appointee serving as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and ex-lobbyist for railroad company CSX Transportation. Astonishingly, Elliott will also continue as head of PHMSA which means his time will be divided between his two roles. IGs are meant to be apolitical and independent; they do not typically come from among an administration’s pool of political appointees. These factors raise significant concerns about whether Trump is trying to undermine the independence of DOT OIG and its ongoing investigation into Chao and her husband, Trump ally Mitch McConnell.
CREW has requested DOT documents on Elliott’s appointment to the DOT Acting IG position, including any recommendations from PHMSA and the current DOT IG office, communications from Chao or her office, and records from the DOT General Counsel on ethics around Elliott’s dual role.
Trump’s reshuffling of leadership at DOT OIG came on the same day that he announced his intention to fire State Department IG Steve Linick who had been investigating misconduct of State Secretary Mike Pompeo. Unfortunately, Friday was not the first time the Trump administration has sought to install a political appointee as an acting IG amidst a high profile investigation. In 2018, the administration abruptly moved a political appointee, Suzanne Israel Tufts, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to serve as the acting watchdog for the Interior Department, overseeing ongoing investigations into then-Secretary Ryan Zinke’s conduct. The Washington Post called the move “an unusual choice for a role that is traditionally nonpartisan.”
The public deserves to know why Trump is undermining oversight and accountability at DOT by installing political allies in OIG and whether there was proper vetting of Trump’s picks.