Embattled Homeland Security Watchdog, GOP Allies, Resistance Probe

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The White House has faced mounting questions over the decision by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office to drop attempts to retrieve missing Secret Service texts from Jan. 6. 2021. President Biden, in response, signaled his intention to stay out of the process as an independent watchdog investigates the inspector general.

But Joseph V. Cuffari and his team refused to release certain documents and tried to block the interviews, thus delaying this investigation, which has now lasted more than 15 months and has turned into an extensive investigation of more than a dozen allegations of misconduct. raised by whistleblowers and other sources, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.

Some Republican senators have also put up strong resistance to the investigation – which is overseen by a group of federal watchdogs from the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) – questioning the need for a full investigation into the Trump administration appointed.

Homeland Security watchdog halted plan to recover Secret Service texts, records show

Led by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the senators demanded that investigators curtail requests for records from Cuffari’s office and press them on their motives, according to congressional aides and documents.

Cuffari and his team complained to senators about a politically motivated fishing expedition aimed at undermining him, according to sources familiar with the investigation and congressional aides. In a writing In response to questions from House lawmakers last summer, Cuffari said the investigation would “destroy” his office. He accused investigators of “undermining my attempts to clean up the DHS OIG.”

A Cuffari spokeswoman declined to comment.

A person familiar with the process described a “war of attrition” between Cuffari and the committee known as the Integrity Committee that oversees the investigation, undermining oversight designed to hold inspectors general to the same standards as officials of the federal agencies they oversee.

“Watchdogs must be held to the highest standards if they are to be credible,” said Nick Schwellenbach, lead investigator for the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight, which advocates for a stronger federal surveillance system. strong and last week, Biden called for Cuffari to be fired. “Cuffari tends to resist the kind of scrutiny that other federal employees face.”

A spokeswoman for the community of inspectors general declined to comment. But former watchdogs said they never saw a colleague investigated look for partisan allies to defend them to the degree that Cuffari has.

“I have never been aware of any members of Congress attempting to interfere in any way with an investigation,” recalls Michael Bromwich, former Justice Department inspector general from 1994 to 1999, who itself is under investigation by the Integrity Committee.

“It’s going to give investigators pause,” Bromwich said. “An already slow process will be further delayed by interest from members of Congress, whose actions will throw sand into the gears.”

During his three years at Homeland Security, Cuffari repeatedly faced allegations of partisan decision-making in his role as watchdog of the third-largest federal agency. More recently, he has come under scrutiny for his office’s decision to prevent his staff from retrieving communications between Secret Service agents during the insurgency.

Last week, top House Democrats called on Cuffari to recuse himself from their investigation into missing Secret Service communications, a request he has so far refused to heed. The Washington Post reported last week that an unpublished 2013 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general found that Cuffari misled investigators and broke ethics rules while in charge of the agency’s field office in Tucson . Cuffari said he was fully vetted by the FBI, White House and Senate during his nomination process.

Homeland Security watchdog previously accused of misleading investigators, report says

The missteps have increased pressure on Biden, who pledged during his campaign to respect the independence of watchdogs after former President Donald Trump ousted several inspectors general.

Biden’s spokeswoman said last week that the president has no immediate plans to fire Cuffari.

“The president has been very clear … that he believes in the independent role of inspectors general and that they perform an important function in ensuring accountability for the American people,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean- Rock. “It still holds. He believes in it.

Traditionally, presidents have been reluctant to fire federal watchdogs, many of whom serve long terms that span multiple jurisdictions. Trump upended that tradition by firing four inspectors general in less than two months.

The CIGIE investigation into Cuffari was launched early last year by its Integrity Committee, which includes four watchdogs, representatives from the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics, and a small support staff. The panel reviews thousands of complaints of alleged wrongdoing by inspectors general each year. Cuffari was one of four investigations opened in fiscal year 2021, according to CIGIE records.

Among the topics of the Cuffari investigation, which is being led by investigators from the office of Department of Transportation Inspector General Eric Soskin, is whether he retaliated against senior officials in his office who spoke of their concerns about his qualifications for the job in 2018 and early 2019, according to people familiar with the investigation. Soskin’s office declined to comment.

Cuffari and those staff members, whom he later fired, had separately pressed the integrity committee to investigate each other. Fiance Cuffari law firm WilmerHale to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations made by these staff members, paying the firm approximately $1.4 million. WilmerHale concluded in his report that his critics tried to derail his nomination.

Investigators are not examining Cuffari’s handling of Secret Service text messages – a topic currently under consideration by several congressional committees.

It is not known if Soskin staff is investigate allegations of partisan decision-making. Cuffari declined to examine the Secret Service’s handling of the 2020 George Floyd protests in Lafayette Square, the spread of the coronavirus in the agency, and the Border Patrol’s treatment of Haitian migrants during an influx in Del Rio, in Texas, among other politically sensitive issues.

Throughout the panel’s investigation, Cuffari objected to witnesses being interviewed and the release of certain documents to investigators, in some cases citing attorney-client privilege, according to people familiar with his shares.

Meanwhile, Hawley and other GOP senators accused community leaders of the inspectors general of failing to cooperate with WilmerHale attorneys who sought their testimony. The watchdogs faced questions about the scope of further investigations by the integrity committee and standard oversight practices.

In a letter to Soskin in March signed by Hawley and GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), James Lankford (Okla.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), lawmakers accused the inspector general’s staff of seeking “protected communications whistleblowers” in the Cuffari investigation. The letter, obtained by The Post, said Soskin had requested “an extremely broad set of communications and documents” from Cuffari’s office and warned it could interfere with surveillance. The senators wrote that “overly broad requests for documents and materials from an inspector general’s office” could divert its attention from its mission to investigate waste, fraud and abuse.

A separate letter Hawley sent Soskin around the same time, the contents of which were described to the Post by someone familiar with him, alleged that Cuffari’s office was being bombarded with requests for documents that made it difficult for his office to carry out its regular monitoring work.

In light of Cuffari’s case, a prominent former watchdog, Glenn Fine, called this week for term limits for inspectors general and a faster mechanism to investigate those accused of wrongdoing. Fine said a president should have a free hand to fire an inspector general for poor performance, not just misconduct.

In an opinion piece for the Brookings Institution think tank, Finewho was fired by Trump as acting watchdog at the Department of Defense in 2020 – called on Congress to give the community of inspectors general a budget to hire its own staff to investigate colleagues accused of misconduct .

” There is very little [inspectors general] who don’t do a good job,” Fine said in an interview. “If someone is underperforming and not providing effective leadership, there should be a way to assess that in a non-partisan way.”

Under the current system, he said, “a year or more goes by while a president waits for an investigation, and during that time there can be great dysfunction in an office.”

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