WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday ousted the second federal watchdog in the span of five days as congressional Democrats accused him of purging federal employees for political reasons.
Trump removed the Defense Department’s Acting Inspector General, Glenn Fine, who had been on the job since early 2016. Last week, Fine had been named by a group of other inspectors general to lead a committee tasked with overseeing how the government spends $2 trillion in COVID-19 relief aid. Trump also named Sean O’Donnell, the inspector general of the U.S. EPA, to serve as the acting DOD inspector general.
Fine’s ouster came after Trump on Friday fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who had told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment, CNN reported.
Lawmakers and other critics warn that the administration is meddling with independent oversight.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that Fine’s “sudden removal and replacement” is “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the President against independent overseers fulfilling their statutory and patriotic duties to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that “Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.”
Now, O’Donnell — who has been on the job at EPA for just over two months — will dramatically expand his portfolio.
On top of overseeing EPA, which has an annual budget of about $8.8 billion and a workforce of about 14,000 people, O’Donnell will be tasked with overseeing the nation’s largest employer. The Defense Department has an annual budget of about $716 billion and employs about 2.87 million people.
Prior to serving as EPA’s inspector general, O’Donnell worked for 15 years at the Justice Department, most recently as a prosecutor in the criminal division’s money laundering and asset recovery section. He was detailed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, where he worked on the group that vetted and prepared candidates — including now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — for federal judicial nominations.
O’Donnell will serve as the Defense Department’s acting inspector general starting this week, said Kentia Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the EPA IG’s office. She confirmed that he will be serving as EPA’s top watchdog as well.
Trump on Friday announced plans to nominate Jason Abend, a senior policy advisor at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to be the Defense Department’s permanent inspector general. That post requires Senate confirmation.
As acting DOD IG, O’Donnell will not automatically assume Fine’s duties as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Under the $2 trillion COVID-19 response package, the Defense Department IG is a member of that committee, which is tasked with preventing waste, fraud and abuse, Elbaum said.
A council of federal inspectors general, which had previously selected Fine, will be charged with naming a new leader of the oversight committee.
‘The world is upside down’
Earl Devaney, a former Interior Department inspector general who was hired in 2009 to police the distribution of federal stimulus spending by the Obama administration, has worked with Fine and called him “one of the best” among inspectors general.
Devaney, who’s now retired, called Trump’s moves to oust inspectors general “unprecedented,” and views Fine’s removal as “an attempt to put somebody in there that they know.”
He suspects that Fine’s reputation “was such that somebody basically said to somebody, ‘We really don’t want this guy,’” Devaney said.
And he’s troubled by the signals the Trump administration is sending when it comes to inspector generals’ political independence.
“In normal times,” the Trump administration ousting IGs would generate more of a backlash from the public and members of Congress, including Republicans, Devaney said.
“Fraud and bad guys, they used to be a nonpartisan issue,” Devaney said. But “the world is upside down,” he added. “This virus business has blinded most Americans to almost everything else, so this is sort of a good time to do something like this if you wanted to.”
Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news publications, including the Ohio Capital Journal. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.