Thursday, May 21, 2020

Watchdogs -- Never more needed, or endangered -- May 21, 2020 column


An inspector general investigates wrongdoing by the head of a federal department who’s also a staunch presidential ally.

Boom! The president fires the inspector general. What now?

Sounds like a plot of a Netflix drama, but that’s roughly what happened last Friday night, when President Donald Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general.

Linick, it seems, ran afoul of his boss by doing his job. Inspectors general are independent watchdogs inside federal departments and agencies who investigate corruption, misconduct and misuse of federal funds. 

Linick reportedly had launched an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of agency staff for personal chores and into an $8 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without the approval of Congress.

Trump said he fired Linick because Pompeo asked him to do so. Pompeo said he didn’t know Linick was investigating him or the arms sale.

Linick was the fourth inspector general in six weeks Trump fired on a Friday night when most Americans were focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the economic meltdown.

Trump on May 1 said he was naming a new inspector general at Health and Human Service, moving aside Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general.

Her office had issued a report about problems in 300 hospitals nationwide that were struggling without adequate equipment to respond to COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus – while Trump was bragging hospitals had everything they needed.

In April, Trump said he was replacing Glenn Fine, acting inspector general at Defense. The move means Fine is ineligible to lead a new panel charged with oversight of the trillions of dollars in pandemic relief funds recently approved by Congress.

Also in April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, Trump’s own appointee as inspector general of the intelligence community. Atkinson had told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.

Trump says he lacked confidence in the inspectors general, but his Friday night massacres raise a larger question: What does his administration have to hide?

The firings also send a clear message to the dozens of IGs stationed around the federal government: To keep your job, avoid annoying the boss.

But we don’t have a king. The Constitution creates three equal branches of government, with checks and balances. All Americans, regardless of party, should demand inspectors general be protected so they can do their work on our behalf.  

In the wake of Watergate, Congress passed the Inspector General Act of 1978, authorizing a system of independent auditors and investigators to uncover and report on corruption in the federal bureaucracy.

Under the law, the president chooses and the Senate confirms inspectors “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting” and other financial specialties.

Of course, no president likes inspectors snooping around, but Trump said Monday, “Every president has gotten rid of probably more [inspector generals] than I have.” That’s wrong.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly tried to clean house of inspectors general. After a bipartisan uproar, though, he re-nominated five of the 15 he had fired, according to a new Congressional Research Service report.

A handful of other inspectors may have quit to avoid firing, the research service said in the May 12 report, but since 2000 only one president had fired any.

In 2009, President Barack Obama fired Gerald Walpin, IG of the Corporation for National Community Service, after Walpin investigated how grant money was used at a school in California run by former NBA basketball player Kevin Johnson. Johnson was a supporter of Obama and mayor of Sacramento.

“No one seemed to care” when Obama did the firing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany complained this week. That’s also wrong. The Obama firing led to a bipartisan congressional effort to tighten rules on firing inspectors general. It failed.

At a time when inspectors general have never been more needed, or endangered, Trump would happily get rid of more.

And so we see a familiar pattern. Congressional Democrats raise alarms while almost all congressional Republicans sit silent.

If Congress won’t stop Trump from weakening watchdogs, the voters must remember come November.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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