Democrats raise ruckus over demoted Transportation watchdog

Mitch Behm will continue in his previous role as deputy inspector general, according to the department

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 19, 2020 at 7:40pm

Three high-ranking House Democrats on Tuesday demanded to know why an acting inspector general at the Department of Transportation was abruptly removed in favor of a political appointee. 

House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., demanded in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao that acting Inspector General Mitch Behm, who was stripped of his duties May 15, be reinstated immediately. 

Behm will continue in his previous role as deputy inspector general, according to the department.

“Mr. Behm’s removal is the latest in a series of politically motivated firings of Inspectors General by President Trump,” they wrote. “This assault on the integrity and independence of Inspectors General appears to be an intentional campaign to undermine their ability to expose corruption and protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Behm, a 17-year veteran of the DOT’s Office of Inspector General who most recently served as deputy inspector general, assumed the acting role when his predecessor, Calvin L. Scovel III, retired in January after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. 

But Behm was stripped of those duties May 15 as part of a wider swath of firings, reassignments and turnover at inspectors general offices. President Donald Trump designated Howard Elliott, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to serve as acting inspector general. Elliott, a former railroad executive, will also maintain his responsibilities at PHMSA. 

Trump nominated a permanent inspector general, Eric Soskin, but that nomination awaits Senate approval. 

In a separate letter to Elliott, the committee leaders questioned Elliott’s ability to serve as the watchdog for the DOT while maintaining responsibility for one of its agencies. The “inherent conflict of interest would prohibit you from having the independence necessary to conduct fair and rigorous oversight of the Department and the Secretary,” they wrote.

“Your dual appointment could severely chill whistleblower disclosures to the Office of Inspector General because whistleblowers might fear that their identities could become known to an official still serving in the Department,” they wrote. They asked that he step down from his role at PHMSA and recuse himself from any investigations involving that agency or Chao’s office. 

The Friday firings drew widespread attention in large part because of the announcement that Department of State Inspector General Steve Linick would be ousted

But the DOT change has spurred criticism largely because the DOT IG office confirmed late last year that it was investigating allegations that Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, gave special treatment to McConnell’s constituents, steering millions of dollars to Kentucky in order to help his political prospects.

Donald Sherman, deputy director of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, questioned the timing and motives of the move. The organization, which investigates ethics allegations against lawmakers, sent a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to the administration on Monday for information about the decision.

The move, Sherman said, seems designed to “install somebody more politically aligned with the president to lead the Office of Inspector General in the couple of months or so it will take to likely confirm the president’s nominee.”

Sherman noted that the office’s most high-profile investigation could do damage not just to Chao but “also to the president’s chief ally in the Senate.”

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said Behm, who is listed as acting inspector general on the office’s website, was never formally designated as acting inspector general but performed the duties of the IG in his position as deputy when Scovel departed. 

“Only the president can designate an acting IG,” he said. 

Behm, the spokesman said, “was not removed” and “continues to serve in his long-time role as deputy inspector general.” The spokesman said they expect Elliott to recuse himself from any audits or investigations of PHMSA matters that fall under his responsibilities.

Both the spokesman and Sherman agreed that Trump did nothing illegal when he designated Elliott for the role: The law does not provide the same level of protection for an acting inspector general as it does for a permanent inspector general. 

“It’s definitely not illegal,” Sherman said. “But it looks suspect.” 

The DOT spokesman, meanwhile, dismissed concerns about the investigation into whether Chao’s work has helped McConnell, calling the allegations “a politically motivated waste of time.”

“While the Department will always be cooperative and responsive to appropriate requests, DOT looks forward to a final resolution of these questions,” the spokesman said.