In a highly unusual move, the Trump administration appears poised to replace the watchdog leading several investigations into one of its Cabinet secretaries with a political appointee.
Interior Department Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall, who has led the office for nearly a decade and is overseeing at least four probes involving Secretary Ryan Zinke, may be replaced by an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Suzanne Israel Tufts.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson bid Tufts “a fond farewell” in an email to department employees on Friday. Tufts “has decided to leave HUD to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior,” he wrote in an internal email obtained by CNN.
“I am extremely grateful to Suzanne for her service at HUD and am confident that she will thrive in her new role,” Carson wrote.
Inspectors general operate separately from the departments they oversee, allowing them to call out waste and abuse. Unlike most other administration appointments, tenure does not change when the presidency changes hands. Candidates for inspector general posts are typically recommended by their non-partisan association, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
Word of Carson’s email came as a surprise to the Interior Department ‘s office of inspector general, according to an official there.
“The OIG has received no official information or communication about any leadership changes,” the inspector general’s office said in a statement.
Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said any official word about the position “would be announced by the White House.”
The inspector general’s office is currently leading at least four probes involving Zinke, including a second review of his travel and a possible land deal with energy giant Halliburton involving a brewery in Zinke’s Montana hometown.
“This stinks to high heaven,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
“President Trump keeps warning people that if Democrats get control of Congress, all you’ll see is investigations and subpoenas,” he added. “Well, somebody’s got to do it.”
The Western Values Project, a public lands group that has criticized the Trump administration’s ethics and policy decisions, said the move “reeks of retaliation for the shocking number of investigations into Secretary Zinke’s unethical conduct.”
Kendall’s career as a government investigator began in 1986, and she became deputy inspector general of the Interior Department in 1999. In 2009, she took over day-to-day management when the inspector general at the time took on another government oversight role. She has official been acting inspector general since 2001, when he retired.
Tufts was confirmed to the HUD post in December 2017. She took over the responsibilities of a career staffer who blew the whistle on the $31,000 furniture order for Carson’s office.