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Trump Under Fire For Sacking US DOT Watchdog

Source: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump said he will fire the watchdog investigating alleged ethical violations at the U.S. Department of Transportation, the latest government inspector general to get the ax, but the first sacking that has broad implications on national transportation policy.

Late last Friday, the administration said it would demote the Acting Inspector General for the Department of Transportation, Mitch Behm, who was investigating Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao for, among other things, allegedly using her office to favor Kentucky — the state represented by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Chao famously selected her husband's state as the recipient of a $67.4-million competitive highway grant even though state leaders submitted an incomplete and only dubiously eligible application.

Behm's removal — technically a demotion, since he'll stay on as Deputy Inspector General — drew immediate criticism from House Democrats, as did Trump's pick to replace Behm in the position, Howard "Skip" Elliot, who currently runs the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and will retain that job when he takes over as Acting IG at the DOT. In other words, Elliott, as acting inspector general of the DOT, will be the official in charge of policing an agency he runs — and ethics experts said that dual role will discourage whistleblowers from any arm of the DOT to trust him with information about inappropriate department activities.

“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," three Democratic committee chairs wrote in an open letter to Elliott. "It also may chill communication within the Office of Inspector General if auditors or investigators are concerned that you will share information with Secretary Chao before it is appropriate.”

The authors of the letter — Rep. Carolyn Maloney of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, Rep. Peter DeFazio of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Gerald Connolly of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations — also wrote letter to Chao opposing the president's removal of Behm, a 17-year veteran of the inspector general's office with a spotless record.

The fracas is just the latest to dog Trump's DOT famously controversial Transportation secretary. Chao has also faced criticism in the past for failing to divest from Vulcan Materials Company, a major supplier of asphalt to highway projects. The Secretary did, ultimately, sell her stock in Vulcan, albeit more than a year after she pledged to do so. But her foot-dragging made advocates wonder if her close ties to the company affected the awarding of government contracts or the drafting of policy that might privilege asphalt-oriented transportation modes like driving.

"The head of the DOT [having] a financial interest in an asphalt company...[does] not sending a message to employees of DOT that she is making ethics a priority," the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, told the Wall Street Journal at the time.

But Trump's decision to oust the department's acting inspector general now is particularly suspect, since the office's more-recent investigations into the Kentucky grant could have implications for McConnell, too. Some are even questioning whether it's time to close the loophole that allows presidents to fire or demote inspectors general in the first place.

"What Behm was doing is the kind of thing that we have an IG in place to do — to make sure that contracts are being rewarded competitively, that we’re not wasting taxpayer dollars that primarily benefit political appointees," said Rebecca Jones, policy council at the Project on Government Oversight. "That’s a critical loophole in our system of oversight, if the president can just fire an IG who’s doing their job well. That undermines everything that the Office of the Inspector General is all about."

Behm's demotion didn't draw quite as much condemnation as Trump's recent decisions to fire four other inspectors general — ostensibly because Behm was only an "acting" inspector general, meaning he had not yet been confirmed by the Senate. But it's still cast a pall over the integrity of the office, and threatened the American people's confidence that our highest transportation office can be the fair and impartial.

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