Update: A day after this story was published, Heather Swift, a senior adviser to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, denied that the department’s inspector general was being replaced.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) is apparently replacing its acting inspector general with a Trump administration political appointee. The more you dig into this story, the fishier it gets.
For one thing, the news first broke in an internal email on Friday from, surprisingly, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.
“It is with mixed emotions that I announce that Suzanne Israel Tufts, our Assistant Secretary for Administration, has decided to leave HUD to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior,” Carson wrote. The Hill obtained the email; the Project On Government Oversight published a copy of it.
HUD spokesperson Jereon Brown, The Hill reported, claimed Tufts’ move to DOI’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was temporary. Tufts has no oversight experience.
Carson apparently knew about the news before even the current DOI acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, who has been in that position for 10 years.
“The Office of Inspector General has received no official communication about any leadership changes,” the DOI OIG said in a statement Tuesday after the news of Carson’s email first broke.
On Wednesday, confusion still reigned: “We have nothing,” DOI OIG Director of External Affairs Nancy DiPaolo told TPM over the phone. “Mary Kendall is in her office, working as always.”
A DOI spokesperson, Faith Vander Voort, confused matters further by neither confirming nor denying the news to The Hill Tuesday: “The position of the Inspector General has been vacant for about ten years,” she said. “This is a presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed position, which would be announced by the White House.”
Suzanne Israel Tufts’ potential appointment, meanwhile, has raised serious red flags, with outside watchdog groups and members of Congress alarmed that a political appointee could turn a blind eye to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s rulebreaking; Zinke is currently the subject of multiple OIG investigations.
“Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG,” House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) told NBC News. “After looking around, the best person they could find is a Trump political operative at HUD who turned a blind eye to Secretary Carson’s $31,000 dining set.”
Tufts worked for Trump’s campaign, on the legal team, and was confirmed in December as HUD’s assistant secretary for administration.
There, she reportedly took over duties previously assigned to Helen Foster. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Helen Foster is the HUD official who exposed Carson’s illegal $31,000 dining set purchase. Foster alleges she was demoted as retaliation for blowing the whistle.
According to Tufts’ resume (pp. 142 here), she recently described herself as a member of the Federalist Society and the Republican National Lawyers’ Association.
Neither the DOI, HUD nor the White House nor the returned TPM’s requests for comment.