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Transfer of Trump political operative to Interior’s IG office angers oversight experts

Oversight experts question Trump's decision to transfer political operative to Interior Department.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

On the 40th anniversary of the nation’s Inspector General Act, the Trump administration is celebrating the occasion by undermining independent oversight of federal agencies.

In its latest example of weakening oversight of government agencies, the Trump administration is planning to reassign a Republican political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — Suzanne Israel Tufts — to the office of the top watchdog overseeing the Department of the Interior. In her new position, Tufts will be in charge of several investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Inspectors general typically serve as nonpartisan government watchdogs and do not have a history of serving as political operatives. Tufts boasts a law degree and experience in public housing but does not have any government oversight experience.

An internal email from HUD Secretary Ben Carson sent Friday announced that Tufts would be leaving HUD to “become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior.” The move blindsided officials inside the inspector general’s office, raising alarm bells among ethics experts.

The Interior Department made the change without notifying the department’s current inspector general.

The Office of Inspector General “has received no official communication or information about any leadership changes,” Nancy DiPaolo, director of external affairs for Interior’s OIG, said in an email to ThinkProgress late Tuesday.

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Inspectors general at cabinet-level agencies must be confirmed by the Senate but acting inspectors general do not. It is highly unusual for a political appointee to be brought in as an inspector general in an acting role, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, adding, “Acting inspectors general are traditionally promoted from within an agency’s civil-service ranks.”

The timing of the change in inspector generals at the Interior Department comes at an opportune time for Zinke. The Interior secretary could benefit personally if Tufts, the new acting inspector general, decides to pull back on the office’s investigations into him and his wife, Zola Zinke. The inspector general makes the final determination whether to open up an investigation and has the power to end ongoing investigations.

“This is a puzzling move. Replacing one acting inspector general with another who has no significant government oversight experience, and at a time when there are several ongoing investigations involving Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s activities, is politically suspect,” Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO), said Tuesday in a statement.

Tufts is a Republican political operative who previously served as a liaison for the Trump presidential campaign helping out on election day in 2016 as a “deployment leader.”

On the 40th anniversary of the Inspector General Act, Trump also has proposed slashing funds for inspector general offices at five different agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a report released this summer by the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). Budget cutbacks can critically impair an Office of Inspector General’s ability to carry out its statutory oversight responsibilities, the report said.

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An administration also can threaten an inspector general’s ability to do his or her job when political operatives, instead of oversight experts with government accountability experience, are placed in oversight jobs.

In his 18 months at the agency, Zinke has become the most investigated Interior secretary ever, facing inquiries into a number of attempts to use his position to enrich himself and his friends at the American taxpayers’ expense.

“Now that Scott Pruitt is gone, Zinke has distinguished himself as the most corrupt member of Trump’s cabinet through his shady deals and lavish spending, which in this administration is no easy feat,” Athan Manuel, director the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, said Tuesday in a statement.

As acting inspector general at the Interior Department, Tufts will oversee four ongoing investigations into Zinke’s conduct, including inquiries into Zola Zinke’s travel and a Montana land development deal backed by the chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton.

At HUD, Tufts replaced a career staffer who was demoted after refusing to sign off on HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s purchase of a $31,000 dining set. She has served as HUD’s assistant secretary for administration since December 2017.

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“Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG,” Arizona Rep. Rual Grijalva (D) told NBC News. “After looking around, the best person they could find is a Trump political operative at HUD who turned a blind eye to Secretary Carson’s $31,000 dining set.”

According to the Sierra Club, Trump is moving Tufts, a political appointee “who ascended to their position under suspect circumstances,” to oversee investigations into Zinke “who is currently the most corrupt member of the Trump cabinet.

Bringing in a Trump political appointee “is a blatant attempt to shield Zinke from meaningful investigation into his wrongdoing,” Manuel said. “The IG should be a watchdog working for the American people’s best interests, not another political player taking orders from Donald Trump.”

Prior to joining HUD, Tufts worked as a lawyer and previously served as a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association. In that role she served as a liaison for the Trump presidential campaign helping out on election day in 2016 as a “deployment leader.”

Suzanne Israel Tufts Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development
Suzanne Israel Tufts Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development

Tufts will replace Mary Kendall, who has served as acting inspector general at the Interior Department since 2009, running the agency’s watchdog investigations and audits team of 265 employees.

Kendall is a career federal employee and, along with serving as acting inspector general, is the deputy inspector general at the OIG’s office. Kendall joined the federal workforce in 1986 as an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of General Counsel. In 1990, she transferred to the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement.

“It’s completely inappropriate to put a political appointee with no oversight experience in charge of investigating President Trump’s most scandal-ridden cabinet member remaining,” Center for Western Priorities spokesperson Aaron Weiss said Wednesday in a statement. “This looks like a clumsy attempt to provide political cover as numerous investigations into Secretary Zinke are underway.”

Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general and former head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the Obama administration, described the Trump administration’s decision to change inspector generals as “a very big deal.”

“Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any congressional oversight,” Bromwich said Tuesday in a tweet. Bromwich, founder of The Bromwich Group, a law firm and consultancy, represented Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while they were in high school.

“Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency’s head should raise alarm bells everywhere,” Bromwich said.

POGO’s Hempowicz agreed with Bromwich: “They shouldn’t be changing hats right now, when there are numerous investigations left to be completed.”