Bill would establish seven-year terms and only allow “for cause” removals.
On Thursday evening, Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to safeguard inspectors general in the wake of President Trump’s recent high-profile IG firings and threats to remove additional watchdogs appointed by his predecessors.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., introduced the “2020 Inspectors General Independence Act," which would establish seven-year terms for IGs and only allow “for cause” removals in order to prevent politically motivated firings. This follows two removals of inspectors general who were well-respected within the watchdog community and the president attacking the credibility of various IGs during briefings on the novel coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, Trump signaled during a press conference on Tuesday that he was looking to oust seven more IGs from previous administrations.
“We simply cannot allow President Trump to weaponize independent oversight positions in his administration to reward his friends, punish his political enemies, and cover up wrongdoing,” Murphy said in a press release. “If recent events have shown us anything, it’s that we desperately need federal watchdogs to safeguard our system from political abuse by Trump and his allies.”
According to the bill, IGs can only be removed for “permanent incapacity, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.” IGs would serve seven-year terms and could serve beyond the expiration date for a maximum of one year until the appointment of a successor.
Murphy initially signaled in a tweet on Tuesday night he was going to introduce such legislation after Real Clear News reported that Trump is planning on firing seven IGs appointed by other presidents, as referenced in the briefing. Such a move would follow other recent shakeups to the IG community.
Earlier on Tuesday, the news broke that Trump ousted Glenn Fine on Monday from the Defense Department’s acting IG position, instead designating the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general to serve in that role. Fine was slated to chair the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an oversight body created by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely as the administration attempts to get the economy back on track during the pandemic. The law stipulates that only current IGs can hold the position, so Trump’s removal of Fine from his acting position prevents the well-regarded watchdog from leading the oversight committee.
In response, House Democrats introduced a bill on Wednesday that would “allow any senior staff or principal deputy IGs to serve.” Fine is still the principal deputy inspector general at the Pentagon, a position he held prior to becoming the acting IG.
Last Friday, Trump announced his intention to nominate five inspectors general to fill positions that have been vacant ranging from January 2015 to December 2018 according to the watchdog Project on Government Oversight’s tracker. This included Brian Miller, a White House Counsel official, for the job of the newly created Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery at the Treasury Department. Trump previously objected to the creation of such an IG in a signing statement on March 27.
Then later last Friday night, Trump notified Congress that he was removing Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson from his position within 30 days (he placed Atkinson on leave immediately). Thomas Monheim, a career intelligence official, is now serving as acting ICIG.
The White House also selected Peter Thomson to serve as the Central Intelligence Agency inspector general. Thomson is currently an attorney at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann LLC in New Orleans, where he co-chairs the firm’s White Collar Criminal Defense and Information Security Practices, according to the announcement.
Atkinson has come under fire by Trump for his handling of the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment investigation against the president. Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency and the Justice Department IG, blasted the move to fire Atkinson in a statement early Saturday. Atkinson also released a statement late last Sunday night saying he was “disappointed and saddened” about his removal because, “I have spent my entire 17-year career as a public servant acting without regard to partisan favor or political fear.”
A bipartisan group of senators, including long-time whistleblower and transparency advocate Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to Trump on Wednesday demanding answers on his removal of Atkinson. Additionally, on Friday, 21 House committee chairs sent a letter to Michael Horowitz, chairman of the IG council and Justice Department IG, with concerns about Trump’s recent actions. They asked for his input on future legislation to increase inspectors general’s independence and protect them from retaliation.
“An inspector general shedding light on serious problems is a good thing; I have always said sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Cooper said in a press release about his proposed bill. “If anything, our inspectors general need more power, not punishment, so they can hold bad actors accountable.”
Correction: President Trump announced he would nominate Peter Thompson to become the CIA IG, not Atkinson's replacement as initially reported.