Top congressional Democrats on Tuesday accused the Department of Homeland Security’s Trump-appointed inspector general of stonewalling their efforts at accountability, and revealed a letter, sent last week, in which he refused to cooperate with their demands.
In a scathing response, the chairs of the House Oversight Committee and Homeland Security Committee again demanded Inspector General Joseph Cuffari recuse himself, and that he produce documents and testimony detailing why his department erased text messages in the days after January 6.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS), who oversee the House Oversight and Homeland Security committees, demanded to know why Cuffari hadn’t alerted Congress more quickly, and suggested he may have been intentionally withholding the information.
Congressional Democrats have since called for Cuffari to recuse himself from the investigation.
But in a letter replying to Maloney and Thompson made public Tuesday, he rejected those calls, and refused to make his staff available for testimony.
His response also addressed letters they sent him in July and August.
The first of those, sent on July 26 by Maloney, questioned why Cuffari didn’t sound the alarm on the missing texts sooner, and noted that the inspector general had presented shifting explanations of how the material was lost, when he learned it was lost, and the extent to which the Secret Service has cooperated with his office. She requested that he recuse himself from the investigation into the missing texts and that the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) appoint a new inspector general in his stead.
Maloney noted that a 50-page semiannual report sent to Congress on November 29, 2021, only briefly mentions issues accessing records from the Secret Service. The report acknowledged that DHS “significantly delayed the OIG’s access to Department records, thereby impeding the progress of the OIG’s review.”
“However,” the congresswoman wrote, “the brief description failed to mention that the Secret Service was the source of the access issues and did not indicate that OIG continued to encounter stonewalling.”
Maloney also noted that the Inspector General Act of 1978 requires inspectors general to send the head of their agency a “seven-day letter” when the IG becomes aware of “particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies relating to the administration of programs and operations.”
“Inspector General Cuffari did not send Secretary Mayorkas a seven-day letter notifying him of the Secret Service’s refusal to fully cooperate and provide information responsive to the DHS IG’s investigation,” Maloney wrote.
To this, Cuffari responded that he has reported to Congress “consistent with the law” various access issues his office encountered since the attack — including the report Maloney listed and “numerous briefings” his staff provided to members of Congress and their staff.
Maloney sent another letter on August 1. This time, she mentioned that top officials from within his office told DHS they no longer needed the text messages as part of their investigation.
She cited an email from Thomas Kait, the Deputy Inspector General for Inspections and Evaluations, sent to a senior DHS official on July 28, 2021, where he states that the OIG “no longer request[s] phone records and text messages from the USSS”. She also linked to a CNN article which reported that Cuffari had known texts were missing since May 2021, seven months earlier than previously believed.
The letter also mentions that Kait removed language from a February 2022 memo to DHS that restated how important the text messages were to their investigation; instead, Maloney wrote, Kait’s final memo praised the department for their responses.
“These documents raise troubling new concerns that your office not only failed to notify Congress for more than a year that critical evidence in this investigation was missing,” she wrote, “but your senior staff deliberately chose not to pursue that evidence and then appear to have taken steps to cover up these failures.”
She reiterated her call for Cuffari to recuse himself, but also requested copies of all communications regarding the decision not to recover any of the missing texts and whether to notify Congress about the missing texts by August 8. She also asked that the inspector general make Kait, Deputy Inspector General Glenn Sklar and Chief of Staff Kristen Fredricks available for interviews by August 15.
In his August 8 response, however, Cuffari refused to allow his staff to sit for transcribed interviews.
He also rebuked the representatives’ call for CIGIE to remove him from the investigation.
“The underlying principle in your request — that CIGIE intervene in administrative or criminal matters at the request of Congress — has no legal basis and additionally would upend the very independence that Congress has established for Inspectors General,” he wrote.
The response failed to answer the questions raised in Maloney’s letter, but Cuffari effectively handwaved them away by claiming the information was on a need-to-know basis.
“To protect the integrity of our work and preserve our independence,” he wrote, “we do not share information about ongoing matters, like the information you requested in your letters.”
In their latest response to Cuffari, the committee chairs lambasted the inspector general for his refusal to cooperate
“Your obstruction of the Committees’ investigations is unacceptable, and your justifications for this noncompliance appear to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Congress’s authority and your duties as an Inspector General,” they write.
They’ve reiterated their requests for documents pertaining to the investigation and access to staffers from Cuffari’s office for transcribed interviews.
“If you continue to obstruct,” they write, “we will have no choice but to consider alternate means to ensure compliance.”