Democrats press DOT watchdog nominee on independence

Eric Soskin faces skepticism over how his IG nomination was handled

Sen. Maria Cantwell , D-Wash., appeard skeptical of IG nominee Eric Soskin's answers.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Maria Cantwell , D-Wash., appeard skeptical of IG nominee Eric Soskin's answers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 6, 2020 at 3:59pm

Democratic senators Thursday accused the nominee to be inspector general of the Department of Transportation of not being “straight up” on whether his position has been politicized, expressing dissatisfaction with his repeated assertions of independence.

During a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Democrats sharply grilled Eric Soskin over how his nomination was handled and whether his position as the watchdog of a federal agency has been politicized.

“I just don’t think you’re being straight up, I’ll just tell you that right now,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who declined to ask Soskin about his nomination because doing so would “waste my time.”

“Quite frankly, you’ve been put into a position that is highly political now and you need to address that and how you’re going to handle that moving forward and you have yet to do that,” Tester said.

President Donald Trump nominated Soskin to lead the DOT’s Office of Inspector General on May 15, the day he abruptly fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.

Soskin, a Justice Department lawyer, has been involved in high-profile cases including the executive order banning foreign nationals from entering the United States and the ban on “bump stocks,” which are devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to essentially act as machine guns.

He was nominated on the same day that the administration announced it would remove Mitch Behm, a longtime civil servant, from his duties as acting inspector general at the DOT, replacing him with Howard “Skip” Elliott, a political appointee who served as acting inspector general even as he continued his duties heading the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The administration had never formally appointed Behm as acting inspector general, and argued that Elliott’s appointment was just a matter of filling a vacancy while Soskin awaits confirmation.

Behm had previously served as deputy inspector general and assumed the duties when his predecessor retired. He remains deputy IG at the department.

Loyalists

Still, Elliott's appointment caused an outcry among watchdog groups and Democrats who complained it was an attempt by the Trump administration to fill watchdog positions with Trump loyalists.

Behm wrote a June 2 letter to key House Democrats expressing support for Elliott in his new position and praising his “record of integrity, law enforcement experience and keen commitment to transportation safety.”

But Democrats said they remain skeptical.

Committee Ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., cited a Government Accountability Office report expressing concern over whether the handling of Elliott’s appointment created “an appearance of bias.”

Soskin, whose answer was only partially audible, talked instead about his own qualifications.

“What I can speak to is my qualifications and my commitment to you to be an objective and independent voice to combat waste, fraud and abuse and to oversee the Office of Inspector General with integrity if confirmed," he said.

[Democrats raise ruckus over demoted Transportation IG]

Cantwell pressed him on whether he would commit to not interfering with investigations involving the secretary or political appointees at the department. The IG’s office last year launched an investigation into whether Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao adequately dealt with potential conflicts of interest, including accusations that she’d given preferential treatment to Kentucky, which is represented by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Soskin insisted his department “will investigate all allegations without fear or favor.”

But Cantwell said she would submit the question in writing, “because I think you’re hesitating.”

“I remain very concerned about what happened there, and well, very concerned about various positions within the administration that I think are overly political,” she said, referring to the handling of the acting inspector general position.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., meanwhile, asked Soskin to back a Blumenthal bill that would forbid the firing of inspectors general without good cause. Soskin declined to endorse it, saying he currently serves as attorney for the government on issues relating to executive officers and their service in an acting capacity.

“It would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time with a position on specific legislation,” he said.

Republicans praised Soskin, with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., calling him an “exemplary public servant.” Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said to Sloskin, “It sounds to me like you’re a pretty talented and experienced attorney and litigator.”

The committee also considered the nominations of Robert Primus to be a member of the Surface Transportation Board and Sarah Feinberg and Chris Koos to join the Amtrak Board of Directors.