August 20, 2018
The Offices of Inspector General (OIG) throughout the federal government serve as independent watchdogs of federal agencies and help to prevent inefficient or illegal use of government resources. The Inspector General (IG) community promotes ethical conduct within the federal government and helps to curb the waste of taxpayer funds. Unfortunately, President Trump has let 13 Inspector General positions remain vacant under his watch. What’s more distressing, is the President seems to be particularly slow to fill IG positions at agencies critical to his policy agenda and where questionable ethical activity has already occurred. While acting Inspectors General have been working hard to hold these agencies accountable, as Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) once noted, “[e]ven the best acting inspector general lacks the standing to make lasting changes needed to improve his or her office.”
Immigration has always played a critical role in the Trump agenda, and this issue has taken even greater focus as the President’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing a “zero tolerance” policy and separating immigrant families at the Southern border. After facing a huge backlash, the President signed an executive order to detain people with their families. Government transparency was blatantly challenged when the records connecting families at the United States and Mexican border disappeared. On July 6, CREW called for an investigation into DHS based on a report from The New York Times that “[r]ecords linking children to their parents have disappeared, and in some cases have been destroyed.” This potential violation of the Federal Records Act (FRA), which preserves government documentation by law, limits the public’s ability to review what decisions are being made within DHS and why. DHS has also been at the center of fulfilling President Trump’s campaign promises, such as the Muslim Ban and the wall on the United States and Mexican border, which have come under significant legal scrutiny. DHS has been without a permanent inspector general since December 2017. Without a permanent, Senate-confirmed Inspector General to serve as an independent watchdog, the threat of DHS ignoring federal laws and ethical guidelines to achieve the president’s political goals becomes more feasible.
DHS is not the only agency critical to the Trump agenda without a permanent watchdog. The Department of Interior (Interior) has recently announced that the agency’s stewardship of America’s natural resources must be balanced by Trump’s goal of implementing regulatory reform. As Secretary Zinke has aggressively moved to implement the president’s campaign promise to reduce regulations, he has also been subject to numerous ethics investigations into his relationships with private business interests as well as the lack of transparency into his own conduct. Shortly after his confirmation, Zinke’s schedule included multiple meetings with oil and gas executives, including speaking with the Board of Directors of the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry lobbying group, at President Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel. Last year, Zinke signed an ethics agreement stating he would resign from his leadership roles in three organizations where he has financial ties upon confirmation, but on his Certification of Ethics Agreement Compliance, Zinke acknowledged that he did not resign from those positions until after his confirmation. Further, Zinke’s wife is the president of Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, Inc., one of the organizations from which Zinke resigned. The foundation is “playing a key role in a real-estate deal backed by the chairman of Halliburton, the oil-services giant” which could benefit from influencing Interior policy.
Since his tenure at Interior began, Zinke has been subject to 14 separate investigations into his conduct including by the Office of Special Counsel, the House Oversight Committee, the Government Accountability Office, as well as OIG. Despite all of this concerning conduct, Interior’s IG seat has been vacant since February 23, 2009. While because of a technical rule, President Obama did not have authority to nominate a permanent IG until 2011, his eventual nominee for the post, Mary Kendall, was ultimately not confirmed by the Senate. The IG vacancy has persisted for the duration of the Trump Administration without a potential nominee.
While families at the border continue to suffer, the families of Trump administration officials continue to prosper. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Inspector General position has remained vacant since June 30, 2017. During this time, Ben Carson has been subject to intense criticism for using his agency post to advance his own interests. For example, in 2017, he allowed his family to invite potential business partners to a HUD “listening tour” throughout Baltimore despite warnings by agency lawyers that doing so might violate ethics rules. Ben Carson’s son “joined agency staff on official conference calls about the listening tour” and “copied his wife on related email exchanges” despite neither of them actually being HUD employees. Following this tour, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services awarded a $485,000 contract to the consulting company Myriddian, whose chief executive is Carson’s daughter-in-law. In addition, Carson and his wife approved the purchase of a $31,000 custom dining room set for his office. Not only is Secretary Carson accused of using his position to benefit his family’s financial interest, but he is also disregarding the concerns of civil servants in his potential misconduct. Many of these questionable decisions were made following the departure of HUD’s then-Inspector General David Montoya in June 2017. Although President Trump nominated Rae Oliver to replace Montoya in June 2018, the post remains open while the Senate considers Oliver’s qualifications for the post. Meanwhile, Carson remains largely unchecked.
Offices of Inspector General were created after the Watergate scandal to investigate misconduct within federal agencies and have since expanded their focus to include creating and executing long-term reforms that combat inefficiencies. It’s clear the Trump Administration is not sufficiently policing itself, nor does it intend to ensure there are independent watchdogs in place to do the job. Permanent Inspectors General are best positioned to provide effective oversight of federal agencies because they are vetted through the Senate and can make long-term strategic, budgetary, and staffing goals to support their work. Acting IG’s are important to bridge the gap, but as one former IG has noted, their status as temporary leaders “can have a debilitating effect on [an] OIG, particularly over a lengthy period.” Without the placement of permanent Inspectors General, independent checks and balances of federal agencies are weakened and long-term reforms are hindered.