Trump shakes up official watchdog ranks

The White House removed an official designated to provide oversight to the $2 trillion rescue and relief fund and nominated a raft of new appointees to handle oversight chores at multiple agencies.

President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, attends the 2019 Army Navy Game in Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 14, 2019. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Dana Clarke)

President Donald Trump has removed the inspector general initially tasked with overseeing the Congressional panel administering federal funds in response to COVID-19 as part of a larger set of moves that altered the complexion of the official oversight ranks at federal agencies.

All told, the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense, the Department of Education and the Tennessee Valley Authority have new nominees to serve in the inspector general role, charged with ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse.

CARES Act oversight

After Congress passed a $2 trillion economic relief bill due to coronavirus, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) – the official body charged in the law that established the inspector general position -- named Glenn Fine, acting IG of the Defense Department, to serve as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Panel to act as the official watchdog of the $500 billion bailout fund aimed at small business rescue.

However, Fine was removed from that acting IG role, and, a DOD IG official confirmed to FCW, relegated the post of principal deputy IG.

The removal automatically triggered Fine's additional removal as the panel Chairman on April 7, since the recently-passed CARES Act requires that the pandemic oversight panel be chaired by a current IG.

Trump nominated White House lawyer Brian D. Miller to serve in the new position of Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery. Miller led the Office of Inspector General at the General Services Administration from 2005 to 2014. However, critics of the administration focused on Miller's role in rebuffing congressional inquiries into the Ukraine matter.

"The President is not bringing talent to the challenge. He's bringing suck ups to the challenge," Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a press conference April 7.

Leaders on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee introduced legislation April 8 that would empower the chair of CIGIE to select the IG for the pandemic recovery fund.

IG shakeups all over

On April 6, Trump announced the nomination of Jason Abend, currently a senior policy advisor at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to serve as DOD's permanent IG. While Abend awaits confirmation, DOD's IG office will be led by current Environmental Protection Agency IG Sean O'Donnell on an acting basis.

Rebecca Jones, an expert on the work of inspectors general at the Project for Government Oversight, raised concerns about O'Donnell's dual rule.

"It raises questions about the IG's ability to do both jobs. The DoD IG has extra duties they take on, such as supervising the IGs overseeing the service branches, where they investigate military whistleblower retaliation. It's not clear not clear how possible it would be to do both jobs and keep up the same level of oversight," Jones said.

The decision to shuffle the decks at DOD comes less than a week after Trump removed Michael Atkinson as IG of the Intelligence Community. Atkinson is the official who advanced a whistleblower report about the Trump's administrations actions with regard to the withholding of congressionally authorized funds to Ukraine – a report that set the ball rolling on a probe that led to Trump's impeachment in the House of Representatives.

"President Trump has been engaged in an assault against independent Inspectors General since last Friday in order to undermine oversight of his chaotic and deficient response to the coronavirus crisis," House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Additionally, Trump cast aspersions at an April 6 press conference on a report from the Office of Inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services that identified medical supply chain problems based on interviews at more than 300 hospitals.

"Well, it still could be her opinion," Trump said. "But when was she appointed? When was she appointed?" In response to an earlier question about the report Trump said. "Could politics be entered into that?"

Trump also recently named new IGs to the Central Intelligence Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"The Trump Administration seems to be engaged in a mass-culling of government watchdogs, which is a real threat to independent oversight," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.