As of Wednesday afternoon, acting Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall had still received no word from the White House on news reports that she is being replaced by an administrator from the Housing and Urban Development Department.
Suzanne Israel Tufts, assistant HUD secretary for the Office of Administration since last December, is being sent over to Interior temporarily, according to a Friday internal email from HUD Secretary Ben Carson wishing her well. The email was obtained by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which tracks IG vacancies.
The reported move of the urban affairs and human resources specialist—not confirmed yet by the White House—raises questions on two fronts: how it will address the ongoing push by advocates to pressure President Trump to permanently fill vacancies at IG offices relying on acting leaders, and suspicions among critics of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the move could be related to the IG’s ongoing probes of his travel expenses, business interests and political activities.
The Interior IG position is the longest-standing vacancy among the 73 slots governmentwide.
Tufts will remain a HUD appointee, according to HUD spokesman Jereon Brown, quoted in The Hill. Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort told Government Executive, “The position of the inspector general has been vacant for about 10 years. This is a presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed position, which would be announced by the White House.”
Earl Devaney, who left as Interior’s IG in February 2009 to run President Obama’s Recovery Board, told Government Executive that to his knowledge, replacing an acting IG with another acting “has never been done with IGs, though it has been done with other political appointees.” The watchdogs created under the 1970 Inspector General Act “are supposed to be selected for nonpolitical reasons,” he noted, though perhaps a few were considered for political reasons.
Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department IG currently an attorney representing such clients as cashiered FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexual harassment accuser Christine Blasey Ford, tweeted his suspicions about the transfer on Tuesday. “This is a very big deal,” he wrote. “Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any congressional oversight. Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency's head should raise alarm bells everywhere.”
“This is a puzzling move,” said POGO Public Policy Director Liz Hempowicz, in a statement. “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. They shouldn’t be changing hats right now, when there are numerous investigations left to be completed. The prolonged tenure of an acting inspector general at the Interior Department is a larger problem, but this move does nothing to address that.”
Environmental activists also expressed concern. “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,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, in a statement. “Bringing in a Trump political appointee is a blatant attempt to shield Zinke from meaningful investigation into his wrongdoing. The IG should be a watchdog working for the American people’s best interests, not another political player taking orders from Donald Trump.”
The White House did not respond to queries by publication time.