The Housing and Urban Development Department on Friday cleared up some, but not all, of the mystery of the secretary’s Oct. 12 internal announcement—since retracted—that a top HUD official would become the new acting inspector general at the Interior Department.
Suzanne Israel Tufts, who since December had been assistant HUD secretary for the Office of Administration, offered her resignation on Friday, and it was accepted, said HUD spokesman Raphael Williams. “Secretary Carson thanks her for her service to the administration and the country. We wish her all the best.”
The agency also attributed the earlier email to staff from Secretary Ben Carson announcing Tuft’s putative transfer to be the Interior watchdog to “a recent miscommunication at the staff level.”
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The idea of replacing the Interior IG—a post already held on an acting basis by Mary Kendall—with another acting one at a time when several investigations are ongoing concerning the travel expenses and political activities of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had rankled critics.
Reports on the latest twist in the story including that fact that Tufts—an attorney with a housing and urban affairs background—had worked on the 2016 Trump campaign in Queens, N.Y., added to the controversy. The White House has not responded to questions on whether it had launched a plan to move Tufts to the Interior watchdog’s office. A HUD spokeswoman last week said that Tuft’s name had been mentioned among several candidates under consideration.
HUD’s bio of Tufts said she has “extensive experience in turnaround management” and served in operational roles in the public and not-for-profit sectors, including public housing authorities in New York State.” She is a “nationally recognized expert in the field of social programming in inner cities including microenterprises, education and women's issues,” the bio stated.
Democrats in Congress greeted both the announced move and its retraction with skepticism. “This administration can’t stop embarrassing itself or keep its story straight for five minutes,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. “If the Interior Department’s explanation is that Secretary Carson doesn’t know what his own staff are doing, they should explain whether Ms. Tufts is needed at HUD or not. ... If they’re trying to shift blame for their latest scandal and backtrack while there’s still time, they should just say so. Either way, nobody is buying this explanation and we’re not going to stop pressing for answers.”
Grijalva last week had joined three other Democrats in an Oct. 18 letter to Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz—who doubles as chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency—asking him to investigate whether Tufts’ short-lived candidacy for Interior IG had been properly vetted.
The public policy director for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which tracks inspector general vacancies, told Government Executive on Monday she still had “a lot of unanswered questions about what exactly happened last week. For now,” said Liz Hempowicz, “I think it's a good thing this move isn't taking place and I encourage the White House to work with the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency as the president considers future nominees to lead Interior's and other vacant agency watchdog offices.”
Tufts did not respond to a Government Executive request for comment on why she resigned.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Interior inspector general said the office had nothing to add to its previous statement that it had received no word of plans to replace acting IG Mary Kendall. Also on Monday, the IG officially released one its reports in progress on the travel habits of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife. The report—first leaked to the press on Friday—painted a mixed picture of rules compliance.
“We determined that, despite a DoI policy prohibiting non-government employees from riding in government vehicles, the DoI Office of the Solicitor’s Division of General Law approved Lolita Zinke and other individuals to ride in government vehicles with Secretary Zinke. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt and Deputy Solicitor Edward Keable said Secretary Zinke was not bound by DoI policy, while Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani said he was unsure,” a synopsis of the report said. “We also determined that the Zinkes reimbursed costs associated with Lolita Zinke’s travel in DoI vehicles when required.”