As the Department of Homeland Security’s Acting Inspector General, Charles Edwards reportedly had a burning ambition: he wanted to be awarded the top job permanently. Employees in Edwards’ office believed his “interest in the nomination went beyond proper ambition,” a Senate investigation found.
Now Edwards has neither the Acting nor permanent Inspector General position. A recent report from a Senate subcommittee established that even as he sought the top job he compromised his independence and got too friendly with the Homeland Security officials he was supposed to be overseeing.
An email to a senior Homeland Security official from Edwards, obtained by Senate investigators, conveys something other than an arms-length relationship between the watchdog and the watched: “Your friendship, support and advice means so much to me. There are many blessings to be thankful for this year, but one of the best is having a friend like you.”
Edwards is one in a series of federal Inspectors General whose actions have called into question their independence. The Senate’s investigation of him highlights the trouble that can occur when acting inspectors general—those temporarily filling a vacancy at the top of their office—seek appointment to the position on a permanent basis. As POGO has reported, that can compromise their independence by giving them an incentive to curry favor with the White House and the leadership of their agency.
An oversight subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs found that Edwards altered or delayed investigative reports to accommodate senior department officials and abused his position by having a member of his staff work on his doctoral dissertation. The subcommittee concluded that Edwards “jeopardized the independence of” the Inspector General’s Office (OIG). However, the months-long probe by the staff of the Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight dismissed some of the allegations against Edwards that Senators had previously publicized, such as notions that he misused a government vehicle or violated anti-nepotism laws in connection with his wife’s employment in the Inspector General’s office.
With respect to allegations that Edwards had retaliated against employees who brought attention to his conduct, the report gave a more muddled account. It said the subcommittee “did not substantiate these allegations,” but it added that “there was an appearance that at least some decisions were retaliatory.”
“Virtually every current and former OIG employee interviewed by the Subcommittee stated that Mr. Edwards spoke of his desire to be nominated as the Inspector General,” the Senate report said. “One former OIG official said that Mr. Edwards would boast about his close relationship with members of DHS management, how frequently he met or dined with DHS management, and that his nomination was all but assured.”
In pursuit of the nomination, Edwards corresponded with then-Secretary Janet Napolitano’s chief of staff, asking him to check on its status with the White House, the report said. The report describes emails in which Edwards told the chief of staff “that he truly valued his friendship and that his ‘support, guidance and friendship has helped me to be successful this year.’”
According to the subcommittee report, Edwards said he did not believe there was anything improper about an acting Inspector General socializing with senior department officials.
Though under federal law inspectors general can only obtain legal advice from counsel within their own office or that of another inspector general, four former officials in the Department of Homeland Security’s OIG told the subcommittee that Edwards would go the Department’s Office of General Counsel for advice, the report said. The report said Edwards told the subcommittee he did not trust his own office’s counsel, but denied seeking legal advice from the department’s Acting Counsel. According to the report, Edwards said he asked the Department’s acting counsel for help finding a new lawyer for the OIG. But the report said the Department’s acting counsel gave Edwards “personal edits” for an OIG document.
The Subcommittee report also states that Edwards directed language be changed in a report on Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the request of Department of Homeland Security officials. However, the report does not describe the substance of the changes, so the significance is unclear. When the Department’s Acting Counsel asked when this report would be released, Edwards reportedly responded with, “Which day is good?” and directed his staff to use the date provided by the department’s counsel.
In an audit on the use of 2009 stimulus funds for points of entry along the Canadian border, the Subcommittee found that Edwards directed that a portion of a chart be removed at the request of Homeland Security officials. The Department “apparently claimed that parts of the chart were ‘law enforcement sensitive,’” the Senate panel reported. However, officials in Edward’s office, told the Subcommittee that the information was already publicly available and was important to the findings of the report.
The Subcommittee also spotlighted Edwards’ handling of an audit report on the controversial Transportation Security Administration (TSA) full body scans. Edwards reportedly accepted an addendum provided by the TSA, over the objections of his Assistant Inspector General (AIG) for Audits. The addendum increased the classification of the report from Secret to Top Secret/Secure Compartmentalized Information, which further limited its distribution, the Subcommittee said.
In an email, the Assistant Inspector General told Edwards it was “obvious” the TSA was using the addendum “to derail our report and minimize our findings,” the Subcommittee said.
Edwards reportedly told the Subcommittee that the additional information and higher classification were important for national security reasons and that he was acting on the recommendation of a Homeland Security intelligence official.
The investigation also found that six reports by the Inspector General’s Office had to be temporarily removed from the OIG website and amended because they were tainted by a conflict of interest involving Edwards: his wife worked for the Department. “The conflict of interest could have been resolved had Mr. Edwards recused himself at the beginning of the audits,” the report said.
According to the Senate panel, Edwards placed a hold on another audit report that was critical of a Department Undersecretary who had recently hired Ms. Edwards. The Subcommittee reported that Edwards told a senior OIG official that he was concerned about the report’s accuracy. Although Edwards ultimately recused himself and the OIG spent over $659,943.32 and 5,490 work hours on the audit, the report was never publicly released.
The Subcommittee was unable to determine if Edwards used the threat of administrative leave to retaliate against those who challenged him. However, it did find, when interviewing OIG staff, that it was widely believed that Edward engaged in these actions. According to the report, that belief contributed to “an office environment characterized by low morale, fear and general dissatisfaction with Mr. Edwards’ leadership.”
The office environment was apparently so hostile that an OIG official told the Subcommittee “there were times that [they] couldn’t even get up out of bed, [they were] so emotionally scared, drained.”
The Subcommittee also investigated allegations that Edwards abused agency resources, including using his staff to assist with his doctoral dissertation. According to the report, Edwards had his Acting Chief of Staff work on “research, editing, and proofreading” his PhD dissertation both during and after business hours.
Edwards also used office staff to assist with his applications for permanent IG positions, according to the investigation’s findings. Edwards told the Subcommittee that those actions were permitted, but the subcommittee said the permission may not apply when the supervisor is seeking a position at a different agency. Among the tasks Edwards enlisted his staff to perform, the report said, was writing the thank-you notes following his interviews.
John Roth was confirmed by the Senate as the agency’s Inspector General in March. The Washington Post reported that Edwards has been placed on administrative leave; however, the Department of Homeland Security’s Public Affairs office did not respond to requests for comment on Edwards’ current or future position at the Department. Edwards did not respond to multiple requests to comment on the investigation.