On Wednesday, TNB brought readers the story that top watchdog of the Department of Interior, Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall, was going to be “temporarily’ replaced with politically appointed aid Assistant Secretary for Administration Suzanne Tufts from the Department of Housing and Urban Development after Secretary of HUD Ben Carson sent out an email among staff last Friday.
The Washington Post reports that Kendall learned she was being replaced when a colleague “showed her Carson’s email.”
“The Office of Inspector General has received no official communication about any leadership changes,” according to a DOI OIG statement from spokeswoman Nancy DiPaolo.
However, a spokesman for HUD said that Tuft was only going to be moved as “a temporary detail,” implying she would return to HUD, while Carson’s email said she was leaving the agency.
TNB; Oct 17 2018
Controversy has followed Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke since he was confirmed March 2017 and is currently under four investigative probes by the DOI OIG for a range of behaviors from “a Montana investment deal involving land owned by a foundation connected to Zinke and his wife” for a commercial deal involving a Haliburton chairman to “blocking a casino project in Connecticut proposed by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes after Zinke met with lobbyists for MGM Resorts International” to a probe into “how Zinke and his aides redrew the boundaries of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument” which impacted the private property owned by Mike Noel (R) who is a retiring state representative, to “looking into … whether Interior Department officials should have allowed Zinke’s wife, Lola, a Republican Party activist and consultant to travel with her husband on official business,” which is against department policy.
It is this last probe, the Washington Post now reports, over Zinke’s travels with his wife in government vehicles while traveling for official duties, among other issues within that probe, that the DOI OIG’s report had been concluded and “hours” before being released that “Interior Department officials said that they did not approved the hiring of a political appointee as their agency’s acting watchdog, calling the announcement of her move by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson “100 percent false information.””
Many saw the move as sliding her in under the radar because, according to under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act since Tuft had to go through confirmation for the Assistant Secretary of Administration for HUD she would not need to be confirmed in the role they were going to place her as new Inspector General of the Department of Interior.
Under Inspectors General policies, “while presidents have the right to hire and fire inspectors in general,” there are laws in place that certain specific qualifications for Inspectors General must meet.
Inspector General Act of 1978 specifies that candidates should be chosen “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations.”
Michael Bromwich, who served as inspector general at the Justice Department from 1994 to 1999 as well as head of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from 2010 to 2011, called the move to hire Tufts “highly unusual.”
“The statute says that alone among political appointees, this is a nonpartisan position to be staffed on a permanent basis by those with appropriate backgrounds,” Bromwich said. “It’s a real breach of protocol to put someone whose only qualification is political allegiance to the Trump administration.”
Washington Post; Oct 18 2018
According to the DOI OIG report synopsis, this probe investigation was initiated after they received information “while investigating U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke’s use of noncommercial aircraft for U.S. Government travel” and that they “learned that Secretary Zinke allegedly abused his position by having his family members travel with him in Government vehicles, that he asked that his wife, Lolita Zinke, be appointed as a DOI volunteer to legitimize her travel, and that he requested a Government cell phone for her.”
They also investigated if Zinke’s use of a protective detail service while on a family vacation to Turkey and Greece, which cost the DOI over $25,000; using his security detail to drive a non-government official to the airport; and “an allegation that a DOI employee resigned because Secretary Zinke made her walk his dog while at work.” There was also an inquiry Zinke allowed individuals to accompany him on an official tour of California’s Channel Islands who had hosted a fundraiser for him in 2014 at government expense and “had not notified Interior lawyers about the fact that they were former political contributors.”
The allegations that Zinke requested a cell phone for his wife and the employee resigning because of the dog where concluded to be unfounded. Zinke did use his security detail to take a non-government employee to the airport. It was reported to the appropriate supervisors at the time and Zinke was told it was inappropriate and it hasn’t happened since the one time. As for the security accompanying him on his family vacation he was given the appropriate authorization for an unarmed security detail. There are some discrepancies that have not been settled over a $7500 bill submitted yet though.
It was determined that while Zinke did violate DOI policy “prohibiting non-Government employees from riding in Government vehicles, the DOI Office of the Solicitor’s Division of General Law approved Lolita Zinke and other individuals to ride in Government vehicles.”
The investigation delved into whether Zinke attempted to circumvent having to reimburse the department for allowing his family and others to ride in his official government vehicle while on official duties.
It was determined Zinke did ask DOI employees to “research the legal and ethical implications of making Lolita Zinke and official DOI volunteer.” While Zinke admitted he asked about making her a volunteer, he denied is was to avoid reimbursement. Regardless, Zinke was “advised” that making her a volunteer “could be perceived negatively, and she did not become one.” Zinke reimbursed her travels and costs incurred.
While it was a “very strict” policy non-Government people were not allowed to ride in government vehicles, it was nevertheless approved on a “case-by-case basis” and a Solicitor’s office employee based that decision on “whether the DOI would incur any cost.” If not, the travel would be approved. The employee told the IG office that “she routinely advised Secretary Zinke’s schedulers that DOI policy prohibited his wife’s presence in Government vehicles and that is would be “cleanest” and “lowest risk” if she did not ride with him, but she also told schedulers that she could justify Lolita Zinke … because Secretary Zinke could not use a personal vehicle for travel.” The employee told the IG investigators that the “schedulers and Secretary Zinke ‘want her in the car’.
Footnote 1, page 2 of the report says, “After being made of aware of our investigation, DOI updated its Fleet Management Handbook on July 27, 2018 to allow the Secretary and Deputy to transport family members in government vehicles…”
Meanwhile Acting DOI IG Kendell is still investigating about the Montana land deal and the other inquires. According to the Washington Post, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview that, “he had developed a good working relationship with Kendall but that the department leaders were scouting for someone the president could nominate to serve on a permanent basis,” adding that, “Mary would agree that it would be good for the inspector general to be a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed individual… I think she would agree with us that the job has been vacant since Devaney left, for almost a decade. That’s not good, because that’s not the way we run the country.”
Kendall has served in the IG of Interior since 2009 after Devaney left to oversee the Obama Stimulus Act in 2009. Former President Obama nominated Kendall for Inspector General in 2015 “but the Senate never voted on it.”