Watchdog Calls on Sen. Grassley to Investigate Botched IG Appointment at Interior

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 25, 2018

Contact: Daniel Stevens, dstevens@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (“CfA”), a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group focused on public accountability, asked Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Suzanne Israel Tufts, the Assistant Secretary for Administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), to replace Department of Interior (“Interior”) Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall amid ongoing investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s unethical behavior.

Read the complaint here.

CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said, “It seems someone tried to push out Interior’s IG to protect Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from the myriad investigations into his ethical lapses. As a long-time advocate for inspectors general, Sen. Grassley should investigate the questionable timing and shifting explanations for Ms. Tufts’ withdrawn appointment.”

On October 12, 2018, HUD Secretary Ben Carson sent an email to HUD staff announcing that Suzanne Israel Tufts, a former Trump campaign volunteer, had decided to leave her Senate-confirmed position to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior. Four days later, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown qualified Sec. Carson’s announcement, telling The Hill that Ms. Tufts was being temporarily detailed to the IG’s office at Interior but would remain a HUD employee. Despite HUD’s statements, Interior officials seemed to be unaware of the move.

On October 18, 2018, the administration changed its story.  An Interior spokesperson stated that Sec. Carson’s earlier announcement had contained “100 percent false information,” explaining the White House had proffered Ms. Tufts “as a potential candidate for a position in the Inspector General’s office” but that she had not been offered a job. HUD officials refused to address the inconsistent explanations, and White House officials told the Washington Post that they were surprised to hear of the plan to move Ms. Tufts from HUD to Interior.

The following day, Ms. Tufts – who reportedly had not shown up to work for at least two months – abruptly resigned from the federal government. A HUD official stated, “due to a recent miscommunication at the staff level, HUD mistakenly announced Ms. Tufts was going to be detailed to another agency.” The White House denied any responsibility, telling Politico, “The claim we hand-picked her is completely inaccurate.”

The timing of Ms. Tufts’ supposed transfer is conspicuous given the status of several IG investigations into Secretary Zinke.  For example, on October 18, 2018 – the same day Interior officials said the White House had submitted Ms. Tufts’ name for the position – the Interior IG released the results of an investigation into allegations that Sec. Zinke had abused his position in connection with his government travel.

CfA also called on Sen. Grassley – a stalwart defender of IGs who previously has criticized the firing of IGs – to meet with the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to understand how it is consulting with the White House to ensure the administration has the benefit of highly skilled, independent IGs throughout the administration.

Stevens continued, “Senator Grassley has steadfastly supported the work of Inspectors General and passed legislation to protect the independence of the nation’s watchdogs.  The public deserves to know if the White House or the Interior Department tried to push out Acting IG Kendall to protect Secretary Zinke.”

Campaign for Accountability is nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.