February 28, 2019
Twelve inspector general (IG) positions are not currently filled by permanent IGs, which can raise doubts about their independence from agency leadership and their authority to do their job. From the start, it was clear that President Trump was not going to make filling IG positions a priority. Two years ago, on February 28, 2017, Trump withdrew four IG nominations being considered by the Senate, including Department of Defense (DOD) Acting IG Glenn Fine. Trump has still not nominated a permanent IG at DOD despite growing ethics questions. Recent news stories from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Education illustrate how these vacancies heighten the risk of ethics issues going unchecked in the Trump administration.
Permanent IGs are necessary to ensure independence within the agency and authority to pursue answers. In March 2018, the Government Accountability Office released a report about the impact of IG vacancies that raised concerns about both independence and authority of acting IGs. The report found that being led by an acting IG generally did not affect the offices’ ability to do their work, though about 36% of Office of Inspector General (OIG) employees said it had a negative impact on morale. A majority of permanent IGs also said that acting IGs appeared less independent than permanent ones, especially if they were applying for a permanent position. Three IGs also expressed concern about the authority of an acting IG, 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.”
In just the last two weeks, the vulnerabilities of acting IGs have been illustrated in the news. On February 13, 2019, a DHS OIG report was released that recommended that Christine Ciccone, a senior DHS official, be punished for “failing to cooperate” with requests from the DHS acting IG and Department of State IG. Despite being a key witness as part of an investigation into politically motivated retaliation against State Department officials, according to the memo, Ciccone has refused to be interviewed. DHS Acting Inspector General John Kelly said that her refusal “sets a dangerous precedent” and has the “potential to undermine our critical oversight function.” There is no way of knowing whether Ciccone would be more compelled to cooperate if Kelly was a permanent IG, who may be perceived to have more authority, but the fact that we have to wonder is a problem. Although President Trump recently nominated someone to permanently fill this post, the vacancy remains because he waited nearly a year before taking action.
The second vulnerability–independence from agency leadership–was recently tested at the Department of Education. Last week, Rep. Bobby Scott, Chairman of the House Committee of Education and the Workforce reportedly uncovered evidence that Acting Inspector General Sandra Bruce was to be replaced because she refused to interfere with an investigation into Secretary DeVos. Department of Education Deputy Secretary Mitchell Zais asked Bruce to reconsider investigating DeVos’ decision to reinstate an accreditor that had been decertified during the Obama administration. A few weeks after Bruce told Department leadership that the investigation would continue, Bruce was told she would be removed. Though Bruce remains acting IG, attempts like this to manipulate IGs and threaten their independence cannot be allowed to continue.
With recent news of efforts to frustrate acting IG investigations, concern about the high number of IG vacancies is real and growing. The Trump administration has been an ethics mess from the start, and allowing these vacancies to persist leaves federal agencies vulnerable to further ethical decay.