Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s office says no ‘nefarious motive’ for replacing acting inspector general

Howard “Skip” Elliott, a former railroad executive Trump appointed as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, would serve in both roles in the interim, raising concerns about whether Elliott would have the independence legally required of inspectors general.

“This inherent conflict of interest would prohibit you from having the independence necessary to conduct fair and rigorous oversight of the Department and Secretary,” the leaders of the House Oversight and Transportation committees wrote to Elliott on Tuesday, saying they were launching an investigation into the moves.

In a second letter, they told Chao they were concerned the reshuffling in the IG’s office “could be an effort to undermine” an ongoing investigation of Chao’s own “possible conflicts of interest” by the inspector general, including whether her office was giving preferential treatment to Kentucky, which is represented by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R).

In a response Thursday, Steven G. Bradbury, the Transportation Department’s general counsel, responded that “your letter implies that there was some nefarious motive in the designation of Mr. Elliott to serve as Acting Inspector General — a baseless implication for which your letter provides no evidence.”

Bradbury wrote that “the Department will continue to follow all requirements of the law, including the Inspector General Act.”

The response did not say why Behm was replaced as acting inspector general, noting only that he continues to serve as the deputy, “where his background and experience benefit” the office and department overall.

Bradbury wrote that there is no need for Elliott to resign his position as administrator of the safety agency, something the congressional Democrats had called for if he is to remain acting inspector general. Bradbury said Elliott will recuse himself from audits or investigations of issues he is responsible for at the safety agency.

Elliott is not disqualified from taking up matters involving Chao “simply because” he reports to her, Bradbury argued, adding that inspectors general themselves fall under the “general supervision” of department heads. “All subordinate officials in [the Department of Transportation] report to the Secretary, including the Inspector General,” he wrote.

Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said Thursday that the response from Chao’s office “actually seems to be trying to defend the idea that someone can serve both as a political appointee reporting directly to the Secretary and as an independent Inspector General charged with overseeing the Secretary’s actions.”

“Of course, this is absurd, and it ignores the very definition of a conflict of interest,” they said in a statement. “The fact that the Department does not understand this basic principle is extremely troubling and reflects a much broader deficiency with ethics across the entire Trump Administration.”

Maloney, DeFazio and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chair of the government operations subcommittee, had written to Chao on Tuesday, saying that removing Behm “is the latest in a series of politically motivated firings of Inspectors General by President Trump.”

“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,” they added.

Late Friday, Trump suddenly terminated Steve A. Linick, the State Department’s inspector general. In recent weeks, he has also removed the intelligence community’s inspector general; the principal deputy inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services; and the chairman of a federal oversight panel covering the coronavirus bailout.

Bradbury’s response said the congressional Democrats’ correspondence includes “numerous errors of fact and law” that do a “gross disservice to Mr. Elliott, to the Department, and to the American people” and should be corrected.

Bradbury cited the language asserting Behm’s removal was part of a series of “firings,” though Behm is in fact still the deputy inspector general. Bradbury also pointed to the statement in the letter to Chao that Elliott “appears to have no investigatory or law enforcement experience,” leaving him unprepared for the inspector general job.

“Even a cursory review of his biography and publicly available Senate confirmation record would have corrected this mischaracterization,” Bradbury wrote. He cited Elliott’s “seven years of frontline experience as a police officer,” his academic degrees in criminal justice and forensic studies, his oversight of the CSX police force while he was at the freight railroad, and his years spent as a special deputy U.S. marshal.

In a letter last October, DeFazio called on then-inspector general Calvin L. Scovel III to investigate potential conflicts of interest in three areas related to Chao: Kentucky transportation funding; her family’s shipping business; and whether she followed her ethics agreement to divest stock in Vulcan Materials.

Bradbury’s response does not address those issues. The response also does not indicate whether, or in what fashion, Chao, Elliott or the Transportation Department will respond to detailed requests for documents and communications related to Behm’s replacement; the evaluation of Elliott’s qualifications; and for lists of ongoing audits and investigations by the inspector general and how they may have been modified after Elliott’s appointment.

A Transportation Department spokesman said in a statement that officials “will respond separately on the document request.”

Maloney and DeFazio said Thursday that their committees will continue to investigate “this attack on the independence of Inspectors General.”

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