New acting DOT watchdog says he’ll keep his other agency job

Democrats press acting Inspector General on conflicts and why his predecessor was so abruptly dismissed

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 4, 2020 at 6:00pm

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s acting Inspector General told three key House Democrats Thursday that he will remain head of a key sub-agency while he performs his duty as the overall agency’s watchdog.

Instead, Howard “Skip” Elliott, who was abruptly put in charge as acting inspector general of the department on May 15, said he would recuse himself from any audit or investigation relating to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, as well as CSX, where he was previously an executive.

“On these matters, I will defer to Deputy Inspector General Behm, who will continue to maintain the high standards of oversight that accountability work requires,” he wrote, saying he has not asked for any modification of a current investigation since taking on the role.

Elliott was referring to Mitch Behm, a 17-year veteran of the office who served as acting inspector general from January through May 15 when he was abruptly returned to his prior position and Elliott was elevated to acting inspector general. Behm had not been formally designated as acting inspector general but assumed those responsibilities when his predecessor retired. In a separate letter Thursday, Behm said he was working closely with Elliott. 

[Transportation Department says House letter on watchdog demotion contains ‘numerous errors’]

Still, the decision to replace Behm provoked outrage from House Democrats, who questioned whether he was effectively demoted because the inspector general’s office was looking into allegations that Secretary of Transportation Elaine 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.

In May 19 letters to Elliott and Chao, 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., wrote that Elliott’s work as inspector general and PHMSA director created an “inherent conflict of interest.” They asked him to resign from his role heading PHMSA as well as recuse himself from any investigations involving the Office of the Secretary, because Chao serves as his boss.

They also asked Chao to reinstate Behm immediately.

Not convinced

On Thursday, they said they weren’t happy with Elliott’s response.

“Mr. Elliott doesn’t seem to get it,” the trio said in a statement. “He wants to stay in a position at the Department and report directly to Secretary Chao, while at the same time supposedly taking on the ‘independent’ role of Inspector General—overseeing the Secretary.  He can’t do both.  He has to choose, and so does Secretary Chao.”

They said they were disappointed that Elliott didn’t commit to recusing himself from the 13 current investigations and 11 ongoing audits involving the Office of the Secretary, and said by recusing himself from the PHMSA investigations, he will have to be hands-off on 19 open investigations related to that agency. 

“Cordoning himself off from activities that are central to the integrity of the IG’s office is simply untenable,” they wrote.

The Department of Transportation has defended Elliott, arguing that the Democrats have mischaracterized Elliott’s background and experience as well as the hiring itself. 

In a May 21 letter to Maloney, DeFazio, and Connolly, Steven G. Bradbury, the DOT’s general counsel who is also performing the duties of deputy secretary said Behm was not removed from office but instead “has long served and continues to serve in his position as Deputy Inspector General.” 

Bradbury said Democratic attacks on Elliott were riddled with errors, taking umbrage at the accusation that the agency had reassigned Behm because he was investigating the secretary. He wrote that the “unsupported assertions in your letter do a gross disservice to Mr. Elliott, to the Department, and to the American people” and requested a public correction of the letter.

Behm’s reassignment was part of a widespread reshuffling of inspector generals in the Trump administration and came on the same day that the administration announced it was firing Department of State Inspector General Steve Linick.

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