Watchdog Groups Highlight Potential Issues of Acting IGs Holding Dual Roles
In “today’s highly partisan environment” this setup could “understandably raise questions and create unease” in both the IG office and the agency where the official holds an executive job, said experts.
Some experts are skeptical that the new acting Transportation Department inspector general will be able to do the job fairly since he’s also keeping his political appointee position.
On May 15, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Eric Soskin, a Justice Department senior trial counsel, to be the Transportation IG. Howard "Skip" Elliott, currently the administrator of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, will be the acting IG. Deputy IG Mitch Behm (who was serving as the acting IG) returned to his previous role. The White House said Elliot would serve the dual roles. The role of Transportation IG is tricky to begin with since Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a close ally of the president, but this situation presents an additional conflict-of-interest, according to watchdog experts.
On June 4, the top members of the House Oversight and Reform and Transportation and Infrastructure committees published a letter Elliot sent them outlining how he will maintain both positions. As an acting IG, “[I will] perform my duties with the utmost integrity and without any inappropriate influence or interference with the ongoing or planned work of [the office of inspector general],” he said. “To that end, I am recusing myself from any audit or investigative matters that pertain directly to [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.]”
Democratic lawmakers were not convinced and neither were some experts.
“Even if Elliott recuses from OIG matters related to [the pipeline safety agency]...he can still discipline or fire [office of inspector general] officials working for him, if he doesn’t like or agree with their handling of the Chao-McConnell investigation or [the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration],” wrote Donald Sherman, deputy director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The new acting [Transportation] IG will also play a critical role in overseeing the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has drawn significant scrutiny from the president.”
Professors Kathryn Newcomer and Charles Johnson ––whose book U.S. Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times spanned research on IGs from 1978 to 2016–– said trying to maintain these two roles in “today’s highly partisan environment” could be “difficult” and “understandably raise questions and create unease in both organizations.”
While their research didn’t focus specifically on acting IG appointments they didn’t “recall any documents or reports of acting IGs also holding executive positions in the same agency.”
The same night of the Transportation IG shake-up, President Trump said he would be firing State Department IG Steve Linick who later confirmed his office is investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Amb. Stephen Akard, State Department Office of Foreign Missions director, will replace Linick as acting IG and is also maintaining the dual roles.
The situation is “nothing short of a disaster for the future of inspector general oversight across government,” Liz Hempowicz, public policy director at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, told Government Executive. She said that to the best of her recollection this has not happened before.
“Any whistleblower across government should now think twice before going to an inspector general's office—one of the few places where a whistleblower has some level of anonymity protections in the law,” she said. “At any moment the president can replace an independent IG with a purely political actor, compromising the identities and disclosures of all whistleblowers that came to that office.”
On Monday, the Government Accountability Office published a report that proposed several reforms Congress could consider to improve IGs’ legal protections and independence, which mirror some recent legislation proposed by lawmakers in the House and Senate.
GAO cited its 2018 survey of 64 IG offices and nine acting IGs at the time that found while most said acting IGs don’t have an impact on their ability to “perform their statutory functions,” their response on planning and conducting work, managing personnel and interacting with agency management varied. For example, when asked how an acting IG affects employee morale, about 36% of IG employees reported a negative impact, 44% said no impact and 10% reported a positive impact.
“Unique independence challenges exist when an acting IG holds a position as a senior employee or [presidential appointment needing Senate confirmation] official of the agency (outside of the [office of inspector general]) or a [presidential appointment needing Senate confirmation] official at another agency,” the report said.
One of the report’s numerous recommendations is that Congress amend the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act, to require the first assistant to the IG to serve as the acting IG “in all circumstances where one currently exists” and mandate “IGs to maintain clear documentation of their first assistants for Vacancies Act purposes, to avoid any potential disputes.”