Three House committees demanded that President Donald Trump reinstate a Department of Transportation (DOT) watchdog who was quietly removed from his post over the weekend amid an investigation into Secretary Elaine Chao.
On Friday, Trump named Howard "Skip" Elliott, who already heads the department's pipeline safety agency, as the new acting inspector general, replacing Mitch Behm, the department's deputy inspector general, who had been filling the role.
Democrats said they were concerned that Behm was replaced "in an effort to undermine" an investigation into "possible conflicts of interest" at the department, including allegations that Chao "was giving preferential treatment to Kentucky," which is represented by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Democrats said an inspector general probe of the allegations was "ongoing" when Behm was removed.
"Any attempt by you or your office to interfere with the Office of Inspector General's investigation of yourself is illegal and will be thoroughly examined by our committees," House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in a Monday letter to Chao.
A department spokesperson disputed the letter, telling Axios that Behm was "not removed" because he was "never designated the Acting IG." But the department's own website listed Behm as the "Deputy Inspector General (Acting Inspector General)" since Feb. 1, when he assumed the duties. He was also referred to as the acting IG in a press release last month.
DeFazio last year called for the inspector general's office to probe a "troubling pattern of potential favoritism by the secretary" and raised questions about her ties to her family's shipping business. The House Oversight Committee opened a separate investigation into the matter.
The Democrats said Behm's removal was the "latest in a series of politically motivated firings of Inspectors General by President Trump."
Trump also fired a State Department watchdog on Friday who was investigating Secretary Mike Pompeo. He previously fired the intelligence community inspector general, who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint which led to Trump's impeachment, the Health and Human Services watchdog, who reported alarming equipment shortages in the coronavirus response effort, and the watchdog tapped to oversee the distribution of coronavirus bailout funds in recent weeks.
"The assault on the integrity and independence of Inspectors General appears to be an intentional campaign to undermine their ability to expose corruption and protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud and abuse," the three Democrats said in the letter.
Democrats sent a separate letter to Elliott expressing concern that he would continue to lead the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) while serving as the acting inspector general.
"Under this troubling arrangement, you will report to Secretary Chao as PHMA Administrator while simultaneously serving in a role that is required by law to be independent," the three Democrats said. ". . . Your dual appointment could severely chill whistleblower disclosures . . . because whistleblowers might fear that their identities could become known to an official still serving in the Department. It also may chill communication within the Office of Inspector General if auditors or investigators are concerned that you will share information with Secretary Chao before it is appropriate."
Democrats called on Elliott to either resign as acting inspector general or to resign as the pipeline safety administrator and recuse himself from matters involving the agency or Chao.
"Mr. Elliott will bring decades of valuable expertise to the role of Acting Inspector General, both in safety and in law enforcement. The letter claiming he doesn't have this experience is poorly researched," a DOT spokesperson told Axios. "We would expect Mr. Elliott to recuse from OIG audits or investigations of PHMSA matters falling under Mr. Elliott's responsibility."
But Democrats said in the letter to Chao that they opposed Elliott's selection, because he "lacks the independence, qualifications and experience necessary to be an effective administrator," noting that he "spent his entire career as an executive in the freight rail industry" and "appears to have no investigatory or law enforcement experience." By contrast, Behm has been at the DOT Office of Inspector General since 2003 and "has received numerous awards," they said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., the top Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees pipeline safety, also expressed concerns about the dual appointment.
"Acting Inspector General Skip Elliott being charged with auditing and investigating the actions of PHMSA Administrator Skip Elliott makes a mockery of the entire system of Inspectors General," she said in a statement.
The lawmakers also requested numerous documents from Chao related to her communications with the White House about the decision to replace Behm. They also asked Elliott whether any investigations had changed in scope since he was appointed.
Jeff Guzzetti, a former senior official who worked with Behm at the inspector's general office, said Behm was "very ethical."
"He was a kind of a business genius on Wall Street early in his career and wanted to do something more meaningful through public service and joined the IG, probably making a lot less money," he told the Washington Post. "I can't for the life of me figure out why he was unceremoniously removed like that, so suddenly . . . It's very odd to me. It sounds wrong."
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said Trump's "attack on inspector general independence at DOT deserves just as much public scrutiny as the rest."
"It is no coincidence that an experienced and independent watchdog was sidelined while carrying out an investigation into alleged political corruption involving the Transportation Secretary and Trump's chief enabler in the Senate, Leader McConnell," CREW's Donald Sherman said. "The administration's Friday night announcements appear to be designed to keep us from taking notice. It is incumbent upon Congress, the public and the good government community not to let President Trump get away with it yet again."