Top Democrats Accuse the DHS Watchdog of Obstructing Their Investigations
Inspector General Joseph Cuffari defended his office’s work, but lawmakers pushed back.
Top Democratic lawmakers are accusing the Homeland Security watchdog of obstructing their investigations into how the office has handled reports on domestic violence and sexual assault as well as investigations into the Capitol attack.
The latest in a series of dramas involving DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari is a dispute between him and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairs of the House Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security committees, respectively.
“In response to the committees’ requests [in May, July and August], you have refused to produce responsive documents and blocked employees in your office from appearing for transcribed interviews,” Maloney and Thompson wrote in a new letter to Cuffari on Tuesday, responding to two letters he sent them on Aug. 8. “Your obstruction of the committees’ investigations is unacceptable, and your justifications for this noncompliance appear to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Congress’s authority and your duties as an inspector general. If you continue to refuse to comply with our requests, we will have no choice but to consider alternate measures to ensure your compliance.”
In one letter that focused on missing text messages from Secret Service agents and President Trump’s top DHS officials in the lead-up to the Capitol attack, Cuffari defended how his office has conducted the probes and navigated access to records issues. He also repeated what he told lawmakers during a briefing on July 15, that consistent with federal guidelines, his office was “unable to confirm or discuss ongoing criminal investigations. Sharing information about ongoing criminal investigations could impact potential witnesses or others who may be involved in the investigative process.”
“To protect the integrity of our work and preserve our independence, we do not share information about ongoing matters, like the information you requested in your letters,” Cuffari continued. “Similarly, we do not authorize our staff to sit for transcribed interviews with your committee about these ongoing matters. Once these matters are complete, we will consider a renewed request for documents, briefings, or transcribed interviews.”
The second letter was in response to the lawmakers’ request on May 10 to provide documents and information related to reports on domestic violence and sexual assault that the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight alleged Cuffari delayed and suppressed, which he denied. (Cuffari was previously involved in a back-and-forth with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee on this issue).
“As I explained in my previous status report dated June 13, 2022, the materials sought in your request fall into two main categories: (Records that DHS OIG obtained in the course of its fieldwork; and records and information concerning DHS OIG’s internal deliberations,” the IG wrote. “With respect to the first category, DHS OIG continues to work with the department to identify records that the department determined to be responsive and prepare them for production to the committees.”
For the second category, Cuffari said his office had requested an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel following advice from the Executive Office of the President in alignment with a 1982 Justice Department guidance memo that the Biden administration follows.
“There are plenty of lawyers at the DHS OIG capable of answering this question,” Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in national security law and information and privacy law, told Government Executive. “The problem is that they probably did not give him an answer he was looking for and so [Cuffari] kept looking. This is not the way that OIGs are supposed to operate.”
In their new, 8-page letter, Maloney and Thompson pushed back on everything Cuffari said including the request for an OLC opinion, arguing, “you did not provide valid justifications for your refusal to comply with the committees’ requests,” and accused him of violating his duties under the Inspector General Act.
Government Executive reached out to the DHS IG office for comment, but it did not immediately respond.