By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's purge of several internal watchdogs at U.S. agencies could hobble anti-fraud oversight for the $3 trillion in federal relief measures aiding businesses, state governments and others hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
These inspectors general, known as IGs, have been appointed by presidents or agency heads since the late 1970s to serve in various federal departments and agencies to guard against illegal conduct and mismanagement.
An oversight board, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), was established by lawmakers with an $80 million budget and broad reach to ferret out "fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement" in the massive coronavirus response measures.
Its membership includes IGs tasked with monitoring and informing the public https://pandemic.oversight.gov about the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic, from public health to doling out money. Trump's firings have raised questions about how effectively the board can provide oversight at a time when IGs may fear for their jobs.
In the past six weeks, Trump has ousted five IGs after saying he lost confidence in them. Three IGs serving on the committee were among them: the Transportation Department's Mitch Behm, the Pentagon's Glenn Fine and Christi Grimm of the Department of Health and Human Services. The other two IGs were involved in high-profile investigations involving Trump or his allies: the intelligence community's Michael Atkinson and the State Department's Steve Linick.
Fine had headed the PRAC before Trump removed him as acting IG and demoted him to another post.
"It really is kind of a reign of terror that is unleashed for the IG community and at a time when their oversight is more needed and more necessary than frankly any time that I can remember," said Michael Bromwich, a Justice Department inspector general under Democratic former President Bill Clinton. "That is bad for everyone, but it's worse for the public."
Democrats and other critics have accused Trump of targeting the IGs in a bid to ensure that only political loyalists serve in these key posts. For example, it was Atkinson who last year deemed "credible" a whistleblower complaint against the Republican president that set in motion events that led to his impeachment in the House of Representatives in December. Trump was acquitted and left in office by the Senate in February.
Trump on Monday suggested that any IG appointed by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama should be dismissed.
'THE RIGHT REASON'
Federal decisions during the pandemic will have lasting economic and public health consequences, said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, a Washington-based nonprofit watchdog group.
"You have to know these are being made for the right reason," Bookbinder said.
A $700 billion bailout package after the financial crisis more than a decade ago was implemented with little fraud or abuse, Bookbinder said, in part due to a "fully empowered IG, oversight provisions and aggressive oversight from Congress."
Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have raised questions about the legality of Trump's actions toward IGs. Pelosi said on Sunday firing an inspector general as political retaliation "could be unlawful." While the Democratic-led House has launched inquiries into some of the IG removals, the Republican-controlled Senate has shown less appetite to do so.
IGs sit inside executive branch agencies, having a unique duty to report their findings to both Congress and agency heads. Their job is meant to be nonpartisan, but a president has a right to remove them for any reason. U.S. law requires a president to notify Congress within 30 days of such action.
There was only one previous attempted mass firing of IGs. Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1981 moved to fire IGs installed by his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter, but rehired some after a political uproar.
Trump's targeting of IGs who were in office before he became president is not a new development. Before taking office in January 2017, his transition team informed several IGs that they would be removed. The White House dropped those plans after IGs expressed concerns to lawmakers.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Heather Timmons and Will Dunham)