House hearing details Trump team's rumored plan to fire watchdogs.
Inspectors general, fresh off of passage of a new law enhancing their powers, “are concerned a lot about the potential impact of [President Trump’s] hiring freeze,” Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz told a House panel on Wednesday.
“OIG offices were hit particularly hard during sequestration and [that] had a significant impact on our work,” Horowitz said, a docket that has grown without an increase in resources primarily due to a rise in whistleblower retaliation cases. “We’re also concerned about the regulatory freeze” as IGs prepare to write new regulations to implement the 2016 Inspector General Empowerment Act, he added.
The comments from Horowitz, who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, came at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that shed new light on the unfolding controversy about Trump transition team phone calls to inspectors general in mid-January suggesting that their jobs are “temporary” and that they might consider seeking new employment.
Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., produced a new email, redacted, from someone described as a “low-level” Trump transition team member (later identified as Katie Giblin) who thanked another staffer for information on the inspectors general, “so we could vet them.”
Cunmmings continued his earlier tirade, “This email demonstrates that these calls were not isolated incidents. This was a coordinated campaign to target inspectors general that someone in the Trump team planned, approved, organized and executed across multiple agencies. The problem is that we still do not know who.”
Cummings again linked the queries to other Trump transition missteps. “We’re at the bridge,” he warned. “What we’re witnessing is not normal. We must not let it become normal.”
Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, had called the hearing to press the need to fill the 25 percent of IG posts that are vacant, enhance their subpoena power and pressure the Justice Department to make more criminal referrals of agency employees found to have violated the law. On the alleged firings, he said: “I've spoken with the general counsel at the White House…. I think it's safe to say that was a mistake, they wish it hadn't happened, it's not their approach.”
The Trump White House has not responded to queries on the issue.
Homeland Security Department IG John Roth explained that he was one of some six to 10 IGs who, it was later determined, received calls after hours on Friday evening, Jan. 13, and that he promptly reached Horowitz at a hockey game to express his concerns. “I was surprised by the call” by someone who “assumed I’d begun looking for another job, [given that] traditionally IGs are not removed with a change of administrations,” Roth said.
Horowitz said he called other IGs over the weekend and discussed the issue at their regular Tuesday meeting following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. By that Friday, Inauguration Day, he had also discussed it directly with Trump White House Counsel Donald McGahn II, noting that “this hasn’t happened in the past four transitions.”
Horowitz said IGs were concerned by the calls not just for their own jobs but for the institution. And in response to questions about gag orders on potential whistleblowers, he said has been training “people who are new to government” on the protections for those who speak publicly, citing the importance of the Supreme Court ruling in the Transportation Security Administration case involving fired air marshal Robert MacLean.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said, “The transition team could have done a better job informing the IGs.” But he questioned whether the actions created a “chilling effect,” noting that all of the IGs were retained and are dealing with new political managers.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who has been working with Cummings to probe the issue, said Issa was “seeking to minimize” the problem that was “taken seriously on the eve of an inauguration.” He quoted the original author of the 1978 Inspector General Act -- the late Rep. Lawrence Fountain, D-N.C. -- saying that the watchdogs were never intended to be fired “wholesale” with every change of administration.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he supported IGs regardless of who’s at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “We have your back,” he said.
Cummings ended by saying he wants the Trump White House to clear the matter up in writing so that morale among IGs doesn't suffer.
One of the shared goals of the IGs and Chairman Chaffetz, the panel agreed, is to pursue the expanded power for IGs to subpoena former government employees -- a tool dropped last year from the reform bill. One context in which that tool would be useful, Horowitz confirmed under questioning from both Republicans and Democrats, is in the newly launched probe into the Justice Department and FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe during election season. Retired FBI agents, he confirmed, may hold the key to how FBI Director James Comey handled the controversy.
Inspectors general from the Labor Department and the Peace Corps generally heralded the new IG law, saying they were busy with implementation that will allow them access to documents previously withheld by agency managers.