Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Wednesday assured federal inspectors general (IG) of their independence during President Donald Trump’s tenure despite reports that the administration may fire them.
Inspectors general are the president-appointed, Senate-confirmed watchdogs responsible for ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse in their departments and agencies. Findings are then to be reported to the Congress (as well as the public), and subsequently referred to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution — if applicable.
But multiple executive branch officials challenged IG access to records during President Barack Obama’s administration, prompting the IGs — led by DOJ IG Michael Hiorowitz — to seek legislative reforms designed to ensure investigators get documents they need to do their work properly.
“I am going to be vigilant that your work continues on, regardless of who is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus Rep. Mark Meadows said during an oversight hearing.
Democrats were angry after some IGs said they received calls in mid-January from presidential transition team members claiming the White House would remove them after Inauguration Day and suggesting they look for work elsewhere. IGs did not reveal the names of the callers, but Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General John Roth said he received a call from the head of his agency’s transition team.
Oversight committee ranking member and Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings Tuesday released Jan. 13 email he obtained from Trump transition staffer Kate Giblin to “team leads,” telling them to inform IGs that they are “being held over on a temporary basis.”
“This was a coordinated campaign to target inspectors general,” Cummings said.
White House officials have since reassured IGs the calls were a mistake, but the fear lingered for Cummings and other committee Democrats. They wrote to the White House counsel Tuesday, demanding more information on the “misguided and politically motivated attacks on government watchdogs.”
“This should be something that concerns all of us,” Cummings said in the hearing, adding that, “… We will rely on our inspectors general now more than ever.”
IGs serve at the pleasure of the president, but terminations are rare.
Obama terminated Gerald Walpin, the Corporation for National and Community Service IG in 2009. Obama claimed Walpin was “confused” and “disoriented,” but Walpin claimed Obama fired him as retribution for an investigation that implicated a friend of First Lady Michelle Obama. Obama’s explanation failed to satisfy some of his allies in the Senate, prompting criticisms from Democrats like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Former President Ronald Reagan dismissed 16 IGs in 1981, while promising to replace them with ones who would be “meaner than a junkyard dog” to clean house in the federal government.
“This action signals everyone who works for or does business with the government that we mean business,” Reagan said.
Support from members of Congress still leaves gaping holes in IG independence and authority.
IGs can’t compel former agency employees to testify, which could cause a serious snag in the Horowitz review of the FBI/DOJ investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s home-brew email system. (RELATED: Legal Hole Could Be Bad News In Clinton Email Investigation)
There are currently 12 vacant IG positions, which oversight committee chairman Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Trump should fill in a “very swift manner.”
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