What watchdogs? Trump leaves office with key IG jobs vacant across govt

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President Trump defends decision to fire Micael Atkinson, the watchdog who followed protocol and forwarded the whistleblower complaint to Congress. USA TODAY

As President-elect Joe Biden continues to weigh critical Cabinet appointments, the new administration will be confronting widespread vacancies in watchdog offices across the government. At least a dozen of the 38 presidentially appointed inspectors general will not be in place at the end of the Trump administration.

Allison Lerner, the incoming chairperson of the inspectors general council, said filling the jobs in some of the most crucial federal agencies, from the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services to the CIA, will require “a heavy lift.”

“There is no substitute for Senate-confirmed inspectors general,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “They are the coin of the realm when it comes to government oversight.” 

Inspectors general targeted by Trump

The vacancies follow one of the most contentious periods for inspectors general, several of whom were targeted for removal by President Donald Trump.

Among the Trump administration ousters was Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson, who handled a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that triggered the president’s impeachment.

Atkinson’s firing was quickly followed by the removals of Steve Linick at the State Department, and Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general at the Pentagon. Linick, a former federal prosecutor, had investigated allegations of political retaliation by allies of the president against career diplomats who been labeled as “disloyal.”

The dismissals, some of them coming during late Friday notices issued by the administration, were slammed by Democratic leaders.

“The President’s late-night, weekend firing of the State Department Inspector General has accelerated his dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said in a statement at the time. “Inspector General Linick was punished for honorably performing his duty to protect the Constitution and our national security.”

Following the dismissals, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, proposed legislation to bolster watchdog independence. The bill, which in part would require a more substantive rationale for removal, did not advance during the congressional session.

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Lerner, the inspector general at the National Science Foundation, said the council has been in contact with the incoming Biden administration to address their needs, including the leadership gaps.

“Something has to be done to move nominations more efficiently,” she said.

The needs have become more urgent in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Agencies directly involved in the health response (the Department of Health and Human Services) and recovery effort (the Treasury Department) are without permanent watchdog leadership.

Earlier this year, a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and special inspector general were among the oversight entities established to track the massive virus recovery effort, which includes the $2 trillion stimulus package approved in March and the $900 billion relief strategy that awaits Trump’s signature.

That effort, however, got off to a bumpy start when Trump removed Fine as the acting inspector general at Defense. The move also effectively stripped Fine of his post as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). 

Fine had been selected by fellow inspectors general to chair the panel charged with overseeing the initial $2 trillion stimulus deal meant to mitigate the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

The PRAC and its 21 affiliated inspectors general have since accelerated oversight on the flood of aid released by the government.

The panel — led by Michael Horowitz, inspector general at the Justice Department, and Paul Martin, the inspector general at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration —  reported that there are at least 141 reviews underway.

The new relief package adds to the work.

“We’re going to keep doing the oversight, doing the work we have to do,” Horowitz said. “We are not going to be dissuaded from that mission.”

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Like ‘straddling a barbed wire fence’

Despite the adversarial actions, Lerner and Horowitz, the former chair of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said the watchdog community remains undeterred.

“We have not been shy about saying what needs to be done,” Lerner said.

Horowitz, whose office produced last year’s highly critical report on the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser as part of the Russia investigation, described the overall mission as akin to “straddling a barbed wire fence.”

“Being an IG is a challenging job no matter the administration and no matter what party is in power,” he said.

Horowitz and Lerner did not single out Trump for criticism, but Light said the White House has sought to harass inspectors general and avoid necessary oversight functions throughout Trump’s presidency.

“I’m surprised the inspectors general offices still have electricity,” Light said. “This is a president who absolutely despises oversight.”

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