Democrats sound alarm as DHS inspector general claims he is not being investigated, is whistleblower

Democrats sound alarm as DHS inspector general claims he is not being investigated, is whistleblower

House Democrats are raising the alarm over possible interference with their probe into the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general after he thanked Republican leaders for confirming he is not being investigated by two committees and claimed he is a whistleblower.

Democrats on the House’s Homeland Security Committee and Oversight and Accountability Committee focused on a series of correspondence with embattled Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.

In August and February letters, Cuffari implied he was not under investigation by the committees’ Democrats, explicitly thanking Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and Homeland Security Committee Chair Mark Green (R-Tenn.) over the summer for “confirming that I am not under investigation by your respective Committees.”

But Cuffari is under investigation by the panels’ Democrats, who are looking into him for failing to notify Congress of missing Secret Service text messages from Jan. 6, 2021, as well as for separately deleting text messages from his own phone that are required to be preserved. And he is also under investigation for his office’s agreement to a $1.17 million settlement with a former employee.

“Inspector General Cuffari’s assertion—which is putatively being used as a shield to obstruct our oversight— raises grave concerns about his judgement and respect for the process of congressional oversight,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Comer and Green in a letter obtained by The Hill.

“We certainly hope, and trust, that you have not counseled or advised Inspector General Cuffari on this matter. Imparting any signal or suggestion to Inspector General Cuffari that he is under no obligation to comply with our requests, simply because they are not coming from the Chairs of the Committees, would be an alarming breach of precedent.”

It’s not clear what communications Cuffari had with committee Republicans, but his February letter blasts Democrats for “incorrectly assert[ing] that the committees you lead were conducting an ‘investigation’ into my leadership of DHS OIG.”

Green’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but Comer’s office called the allegations “absurd.”

“The Oversight Committee majority is not currently investigating the DHS Office of the Inspector General and has never told anyone not to comply with the minority’s requests. If Ranking Member Raskin is looking for help with getting documents as part of the Democrats’ investigation, we can discuss that if he is willing to use his political capital to help us obtain documents about Joe Biden’s mental state and involvement in his family’s business dealings,” his office said in a statement.

Raskin’s office later countered that statement by describing Comer’s investigation into ties between President Biden and his son’s business dealing as “debunked.”

In another puzzling move, Cuffari also appeared to assert he is a whistleblower — sending his correspondence with markings reading “WHISTLEBLOWING DISCLOSURE – FOR COMMITTEE USE ONLY” despite being unable to qualify as a whistleblower given his status as the head of a department.

In his August letter, he also references his “protected whistleblowing communications with Congress” about a separate investigation he is facing from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

Democrats questioned whether in asserting such status Cuffuri “may be attempting (in vain) to shield himself from oversight” as well as prevent the release of his correspondence, which was also obtained by The Hill.

“Our staff made numerous attempts to engage with DHS OIG to obtain clarification and explanation on the blanket use of this marking and to determine whether Inspector General Cuffari was attempting in this unusual way to make a whistleblowing disclosure to Congress. However, DHS OIG staff failed to respond to our staff’s direct inquiries,” Raskin and Thompson wrote.

“While the Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits retaliation against most executive branch employees for making protected disclosures or engaging in protected activities, Inspector General Cuffari is the head of a federal agency and is thus is not covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act. His suggestion that our exercise of congressional oversight amounts to retaliation and his demand that you intervene are baffling and alarming and, to our knowledge, completely unprecedented.”

Cuffari in his most recent letter snubbed congressional Democrats, failing to reply directly to Raskin and Thompson and instead addressing his correspondence to Comer and Green.

It’s something Democrats called “a blatant and surprisingly churlish attempt to obstruct our oversight and raises serious concerns about whether he is in any way capable of acting in an independent and nonpartisan way, as is required by law of an inspector general.”

“As Chairmen of our respective Committees, we urge you to repudiate this strange, unprecedented and petulant action by the head of an Office of Inspector General (OIG) and assure us that you do not intend to condone or encourage Inspector General Cuffari’s persistent failure to comply with our requests.”

Cuffari’s office did not respond to request for comment. The Hill has not received a response to numerous requests for comment from Cuffari’s office since September 2022.

Cuffari, a former adviser on military issues for then-Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), was nominated to his post by former President Trump in 2019, and he has since faced numerous investigations into his leadership.

Raskin and Thomspon called on Cuffari to hand over his Jan. 6 oversight to another entity after obtaining emails showing his deputy at one point abandoned efforts to obtain missing Jan. 6 text messages and then minimized the issue in a memo to DHS leadership.

And in another eyebrow-raising moment he told lawmakers he regularly deletes his own text messages, despite requirements to preserve them.

“It’s my normal practice to delete text messages,” Cuffari said in a June hearing, answering “correct” when Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) asked if he does this on an ongoing basis.

Cuffari had also sued the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency in his personal capacity over its investigation into him, something that was dismissed by the judge who determined he failed to demonstrate how the body’s probe amounted to unlawful harassment.

Raskin and Thompson are also probing Cuffari’s $1.4 million contract with a law firm to investigate former employees, including the woman who would later get a $1.17 million settlement after Cuffari pushed to transition her to a DHS division that deals with countering weapons of mass destruction.

Under Cuffari’s leadership, the DHS Office of Inspector General has declined to investigate major events involving the agencies he helps oversee or imposed limits on their reach.

That includes declining to investigate after Border Patrol officers on horseback corralled Haitian migrants. Instead, the matter was handed off to its Office of Professional Responsibility.

In 2020, he refused to initiate an investigation into the Secret Service’s involvement and response to the clearing of protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Square just outside the White House that June to protest the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.

And a prior bipartisan letter from the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Cuffari both about an unpublished report detailing widespread employee concerns over sexual harassment at DHS as well as a move by Cuffari to “substantially restrict” another report evaluating how the agency complied with a law requiring the removal of law enforcement officers with domestic violence convictions.

An anonymous letter from DHS Office of Inspector General employees asked President Biden to remove Cuffari from his post.

“We need help. We can no longer be silent when faced with continuous mismanagement of DHS OIG at its highest levels,” they wrote in the letter.

“IG Cuffari has made clear that he wishes to remain in his position, even in the face of prolonged, deserved criticism in the media, from Congress, from other oversight entities and from his own staff.”

Updated at 2:27 p.m.

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