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House Democrats say Trump administration interfered with investigation of DeVos

Democrats claim that the Trump administration interfered in an investigation by trying to remove a department's inspector general.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens to U.S. President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House February 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens to U.S. President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House February 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democrats suggested that the Trump administration tried to get rid of the Education Department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, for looking into Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ decision to reinstate an accreditor of for-profit colleges.

This isn’t the first time the administration has been accused of not only violating norms in the administrative process of agencies, but pushing against legal boundaries as well.

In a letter sent on Tuesday, five House and Senate Democrats referred to a letter sent on January 3 from Mick Zais, the deputy secretary of education, which asked Bruce’s office to “reconsider any plan it might have to review” the controversial decision to reinstate the accreditor, according to Politico, which has reviewed the letter. The letter was signed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).

Democrats say Zais’ letter is a “clear attempt to violate the statutory independence” of the inspector general’s office. Zais also wrote that it is “disturbing that your office appears to be responding to a Congressional request that is really a disagreement over policy and the merits of the Department’s decision.” Democrats also said they want more documents about the decision to replace Bruce by March 5.

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Bruce replied that the office would continue the review of the decision about the accreditor, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), but would no longer engage with the department. “Independence (in appearance and fact) is key in the effective operation of an OIG,” Bruce wrote, adding that federal law that does not allow department leadership to stop the inspector general from investigating an issue.

ACICS oversaw the now defunct for-profit college chains ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges. In December of 2016, Education Secretary John King withdrew its recognition. In March of last year, a federal judge said the department did not consider key evidence at the time and ordered the department to reconsider ACICS. But another review of ACICS over the summer of last year by Education Department staff still found that ACICS failed to meet numerous federal standards, and there was no evidence that it effectively evaluates recruitment practices by institutions.

Zais called Bruce a few weeks after this exchange and told her she would be removed from her position. The department chose Phil Rosenfelt, its deputy general counsel, as its acting inspector general in late January. But Democrats in Congress said it would damage the inspector general’s independence to have its in-house legal counsel take on a role overseeing the department’s potential incidents of fraud and abuse. Only two days later, Education Department Spokeswoman Liz Hill told media that “After they re-evaluated the situation, the decision was made, in an abundance of caution, to rescind the designation.” Hill told Politico that talks about replacing Bruce happened before Zais sent her a letter about the inquiry into ACICS.

It’s not just the Education Department. Many members of the Trump administration have demonstrated a loose understanding of their ethical and legal obligations.

In February of 2017, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics called on the White House to consider disciplining Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway after she told Americans to buy items from Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessories line while she was interviewed from the White House. According to a section of the standards of conduct for federal employees, they can’t use their public office to endorse products. An investigation from Fox 25 in Oklahoma found that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt used a private email account for official business as state attorney general. During his confirmation hearing, he said he only used his official email address. Pruitt eventually resigned after a series of scandals.

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Its leadership decisions have also been called into question as ethically dubious at best. The Trump administration put Mick Mulvaney in place as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency which is supposed to provide oversight for the financial sector, despite his being the director of an agency within the Executive Office of the President, the Office of Management and Budget. He has also called to eliminate the agency. In April of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit started deliberating on Mick Mulvaney’s ability to lead the agency. The chief of staff under the former CFPB Director Richard Cordray, Leandra English, said she is the rightful acting director of the agency. Although judges appeared to be unsure if English is the appropriate director, they inquired about Mulvaney’s ability to be head of the CFPB while working directly under the president.

Judge Patricia Millett said at a court hearing in April of last year, according to American Banker, “He is wearing two hats at the same time. If we’re talking about straining things, it seems a strain to suggest that Mr. Mulvaney would wake up and say, ‘I wish to do this as CFPB director, but of course as OMB director I think that’s a terrible, horrible thing to do.’”

The administration eventually put Kathy Kraninger in the role, but she was barely approved with a 50-49 in December, with great opposition from Democrats. Kraninger doesn’t have experience in consumer issues and financial services and when she was tapped for the role, she worked for Mulvaney at the OMB.

In March of last year, the U.S. Department of Labor decided to scrub an analysis from its proposal affecting tipped workers after it found workers would be robbed of hundreds of millions of dollars.The department’s Office of the Inspector General is currently investigating its handling of the tip pool regulation, and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Mark Takano (D-CA) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) sent a letter to Secretary Acosta saying that they want information on the analyses on the rule.

The Trump administration has not always moved forward with a strong legal basis for its policy moves. A federal judge ruled in September that actions taken by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to stall protections for defrauded students were illegal, “procedurally invalid,” and “arbitrary and capricious.” In May of last year, a federal judge said the Education Department violated privacy laws by using Social Security Administration data to determine loan forgiveness for borrowers defrauded by Corinthian colleges.