Officials from the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) and outside colleagues were shocked to learn that President Trump replaced Acting IG Mitchell Behm, a longstanding member of the office, with a political appointee, according to new documents obtained by CREW.
“Mitch, OMG,” wrote one associate. Behm himself commented that the situation was “Wild.”
At the time of his demotion, Behm was overseeing a high profile investigation of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s alleged favoritism benefiting her husband Senator Mitch McConnell’s political prospects. The records CREW received suggest that one of the subjects of that investigation informed Behm of the shakeup, and allude to larger concerns about Trump’s pattern of installing loyalists.
On the evening of Friday, May 15, 2020, President Trump continued his attacks on independent government watchdogs by announcing the replacement of Behm as well as his intention to fire State Department IG Steve Linick. Trump removed Behm as Acting IG in favor of Howard “Skip” Elliott, a political appointee who has retained his position as Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration while also leading OIG until a permanent IG is confirmed by the Senate. Just before that, Trump announced his intention to nominate a Department of Justice senior trial counsel, Eric Soskin, to serve as the permanent IG at Transportation.
DOT OIG emails suggest that Behm was first notified of his demotion by a central figure in Chao’s reported efforts to benefit McConnell, someone whose conduct was likely under investigation by Behm. On May 15, 2020 at 7:03 pm, Secretary Chao’s Chief of Staff Todd Inman forwarded Behm a message with the subject, “FW: Inspector General designation” stating, “We just received this and as a courtesy wanted to pass along a copy.” Shortly thereafter, Behm forwarded the email to a group of senior OIG staff writing, “And Skip Elliott is now the Acting IG.”
In 2019, public reports revealed that Chao enlisted Inman to serve as a “special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.” OIG opened an investigation into these allegations later that year. The OIG emails do not indicate the source of Inman’s notification regarding Behm’s reassignment, but Congress is currently investigating any potential involvement by agency staff in “[t]he change in status including removal, demotion, or replacement of Mr. Behm in his role as Acting IG.”
The day after Behm’s demotion, an associate from outside DOT OIG suggested that the move to sideline him confirmed the Trump administration’s desire to replace independent IGs with loyalists. The sender wrote: “Mitch, OMG- missed that one. Wow. They really only trust their own bench. No reflection on you or the others like Steve Linick.”
Over the course of the weekend, Behm corresponded with multiple colleagues who expressed concern and disappointment that Behm had not been nominated to the position permanently. Behm has served at DOT OIG since 2003 and received numerous awards from the IG community for his work. His relevant experience dwarfs that of both Soskin and Elliott, leading many to question Trump’s motives in dismissing Behm, especially against the backdrop of the Chao-McConnell investigation.
Behm wrote to an associate outside of the Department, “And Skip Elliott, the PHMSA Administrator was named Acting IG. Wild.”
“Mitch, was sorry to see this. I think you would have been an excellent choice to carry on all of the good things and impactful work that Cal [DOT’s recently retired IG Calvin Scovel, III] had started,” the associate wrote.
Behm’s colleague commented, “Ending on a personal note, you would have been a crackerjack permanent DOT IG, if you had been nominated.”
Despite legitimate concern about the suspect circumstances and abrupt change, Behm and his colleagues expressed continued support for the important mission of the office under the new Acting IG. The day after Trump’s announcements, Behm emailed OIG staff on Saturday afternoon, writing: “I will return to my position as Deputy Inspector General. I will be meeting with Mr. Elliott Monday morning to begin working through the details of how this transition will work.”
Chuck Ward, the Assistant IG for Audit Operations and Special Reviews wrote, “As Deputy again, I hope you’re given continued latitude to operate in a similarly proactive manner, though I’m certain that even if the Deputy role is modified, you’ll fill the position effectively. Looking forward to supporting you and the new Acting IG in this transition.”
Behm also received encouragement from outside DOT IG, with one email reading, “Chin up as Mr Soskin will need all of your expertise and advice.”
When Trump disempowered leadership at DOT OIG and continued his pattern of installing loyalists, members of the public and associates in the IG community were rightly concerned. Strong independent leadership at DOT OIG remains important given its continuing work conducting the Chao-McConnell investigation as well as its important role in overseeing the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. While President Trump’s Friday night massacres —- escalating attacks against independent government watchdogs— have clearly shaken officials in the affected offices, these records show the resolve of the IG community to forge ahead in carrying out their crucial public service. Yet, the questions raised by these records, especially regarding the impact of President Trump’s loyalty purge and reliance of the administration on “their own bench” for independent oversight positions, deserve more public attention and scrutiny.