Chalk up another victory for independent audit and oversight: a Trump Administration political appointee poised to take over as inspector general of the Interior Department quit on Friday, amid outcry that she was only getting the job to undermine investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s doings.
The inspector who never was, Suzanne Israel Tufts, fled the federal government after a typical Trumpian Administration episode of administrative bumbling, public backlash, and hasty retreat. Here’s how it happened.
Tufts had been assistant secretary for administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development since last year. Last Tuesday, HUD secretary Ben Carson, never the most politically astute person, circulated an email to HUD staff wishing Tufts well as the new acting inspector general for the Interior Department. Tufts would be replacing the current acting inspector general, Mary Kendall — who has been in that acting role since 2009.
This news played poorly with past and current inspectors general of the federal government. They noted that Tufts isn’t an auditor or inspector general by training, and has far less experience than one should expect for such an important job. Before working at HUD, she worked for the Trump campaign training lawyers to watch the polls on Election Day in 2016. Most of Tuft’s career, she has been a business consultant floating around New York.
Take this tweet from Michael Bromwich, an inspector general at the Justice Department in the 1990s and later an Interior Department official charged with reforming offshore drilling regulations after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:
This is a very big deal. Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any Congressional oversight. Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency’s head should raise alarm bells everywhere. https://t.co/G8YvcRfX91
— Michael R. Bromwich (@mrbromwich) October 16, 2018
The mess was made worse because Zinke is currently under multiple investigations for profligate travel spending, bending Interior Department policies for political favorites, sweetheart deals with oil companies, and all usual misconduct and weirdness we’ve come to know from Trump Administration cabinet members.
(My favorite story is that Zinke has staffers raise or lower special ceremonial flags atop the Interior Department headquarters any time he arrives or departs the building. I’ve been trying to get my four-year-old to do the same when I come home after work, so far to no success.)
Cue the standard public outcry and hasty retreat. The Interior Department said the White House passed along Tufts’ name. The White House denied this. Democrats in Congress grumbled that Tufts’ appointment would be yet one more reason that they should investigate Zinke themselves, should they win a majority in Congress next month.
With all this controversy afoot, Tufts became the first person to show some intelligence, and quit working for the Trump Administration on Friday. I suspect most people would, rather than have a sordid mess like this be your top Google search result for the rest of your life and sour your chances of gainful employment in the private sector again.
As of this weekend, we don’t know whether Kendall will remain as acting inspector general, although clearly she should, since she’s been doing the job for nine years — including 18 months under the Trump Administration — and has several investigations ongoing.
It’s also worth noting that the Trump Administration only wanted to name Tufts acting inspector general. Permanent inspectors general need Senate confirmation; acting IGs don’t. So if a certain president did want to shut down embarrassing investigations into yet another Cabinet member, naming Tufts as acting IG would be one way to do that.
Thankfully none of that happened. Corporate compliance and audit professionals sometimes overlook our government sector counterparts, but they are our brothers-in-arms and they have a tough fight on their hands these days. So let’s breathe a sigh of relief that the hallmarks of success for our profession — independence and objectivity — prevailed this time.
We close with a potshot President Trump fired at Michael Horowitz, inspector general of the Justice Department, earlier this year.
Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2018