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DHS Watchdog Staff Call on Biden to Fire Inspector General Cuffari

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO; Photo: The White House / Flickr)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) watchdog staff recently called on President Joe Biden to remove their boss, Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, according to a blistering letter obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). "The highest priorities of an inspector general are integrity and independence,” states the letter. “IG Cuffari and his inner circle of senior leaders have fallen short in these areas time and time again."

In recent months, Cuffari has come under a barrage of criticism from powerful congressional committee chairs. Members of Congress expressed outrage with his months-long delay in publicizing the Secret Service and DHS deletion of text messages related to January 6. Those same congressional chairs have encountered stonewalling by Cuffari, who, citing an ongoing criminal investigation, refuses to provide substantive responses to their questions about his office’s handling of its January 6 probe.

The previously unreported letter from staff in the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) reveals that criticism is not just coming from Congress. The writers describe themselves as “concerned DHS OIG employees representing every program office at every grade level.”

POGO verified the letter is authentic and authored by current inspector general staff. Sources confirmed that the letter was sent this month to the White House, congressional offices, the Government Accountability Office, and elsewhere.

“After years of poor decision-making by IG Joseph Cuffari, PhD, and his front office staff, we can no longer hope that the ship will right itself,” the employees wrote. “We need help. We can no longer be silent when faced with continuous mismanagement of DHS OIG at its highest levels”

“DHS OIG will continue to fail under his disastrous leadership,” they wrote.

So far, the White House hasn’t offered much help. Amidst calls by POGO’s executive director and others for Biden to remove Cuffari, the White House press secretary said on August 5 that, “we’re looking at the facts and the situation. It is being investigated.” On the campaign trail in 2020, in reaction to a spate of highly criticized watchdog removals by then-President Donald Trump, Biden made a promise that he would not remove inspectors general.

We need help. We can no longer be silent when faced with continuous mismanagement of DHS OIG at its highest levels

DHS OIG staff

In their letter to the president, staff cited a “fear of retaliation” as their reason for not identifying themselves as signatories.

Those concerns have a real basis. Cuffari is the subject of an ongoing investigation for potentially retaliating against former employees in his office, as POGO reported earlier this year. That probe is being conducted by the Integrity Committee, an arm of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency that polices alleged misconduct by top watchdog officials. The Washington Post reports that Cuffari, through Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), has sought to restrain the Integrity Committee’s investigation of him by objecting to the scope of its requests for information.

Furthermore, as POGO first reported last month, Cuffari’s chief of staff Kristen Fredricks — also named in the letter as a concern — is currently under investigation for whistleblower retaliation by the inspector general of the Social Security Administration, where she used to work. (The Social Security watchdog office cannot comment, according to a spokesperson.)

“We are not aware of the letter you reference,” a spokesperson for the DHS watchdog office told POGO. Despite being provided extensive quotations from the letter, the spokesperson did not offer any specific comment on it or other questions asked by POGO.

The spokesperson highlighted Cuffari’s efforts to engage his staff. “Since his confirmation IG Cuffari has provided every OIG employee multiple opportunities to meet with him and other senior leaders, in small groups,” the spokesperson wrote. “The feedback employees have provided during those sessions has been overwhelmingly positive and useful to continue to improve our operations.”

Cuffari has allegedly “damaged the organization”

The new letter cites a litany of Cuffari’s “decisions that have demoralized his staff and damaged the organization,” such as “refusing to move forward with important proposed work without reason” and “interfering with staff efforts to gather information necessary to perform independent oversight.”

POGO reported last year on Cuffari’s delay in greenlighting a review of high-profile claims against then-DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf. It wasn’t until after the 2020 election that he allowed his office to investigate charges that Wolf retaliated against a senior DHS official for blowing the whistle on the suppression of intelligence that could anger Trump. When that investigation did begin, Cuffari and his close aides limited watchdog staff efforts to interview Wolf and another top Trump-era political appointee. (Wolf has previously denied the retaliation claims.)

Other problems cited by the letter are Cuffari’s practice of freezing out staff experts from “key decisions and communications regarding their work” and “delaying the release of audits, inspections and investigations, sometimes for months or even years.”

At times, such delays have resulted in reviews being put at risk of being scrapped. In April, for example, POGO revealed that Cuffari had sat for more than a year on a report detailing damning findings of pervasive workplace sexual misconduct throughout DHS law enforcement components, and widespread impunity for these acts. Cuffari did not inform DHS’s leadership or Congress of these findings until after POGO’s reporting revealed them. When he did share survey findings that were part of the report, he suggested that, since it was by then out of date, the full report might not be released at all.

In the face of criticism, Cuffari has often noted that the DHS watchdog office has long been beset by problems, many predating his arrival. The letter alludes to those issues, which were detailed in a 2021 Government Accountability Office review, but it states that Cuffari has failed to turn the office around.

“We were hopeful that IG Cuffari would make meaningful change after GAO completed its review of our office,” the letter states, “but here we are and the situation is the same.”

"Staff do not trust IG Cuffari”

Cuffari has repeatedly cited his office’s improved Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores as evidence that he has made a difference. The most recent survey scores are based on staff responses from late 2021, which led the non-profit Partnership for Public Service to rank the DHS Office of Inspector General as the 253rd best agency subcomponent to work at, out of 432. (The office’s rank for “Effective Leadership: Senior Leaders” is lower, at 284 out of 432.) More recent data shining light on views within the office is forthcoming. The 2022 survey was administered beginning in late spring and wrapped up in July. The results are not yet public.

The staff letter asserts that more recently, morale has dropped, along with faith in the inspector general. “He no longer has the support of his workforce,” according to the letter. “Staff do not trust IG Cuffari and his senior leadership to make the right decisions.”

On Capitol Hill, a trust deficit between Cuffari and key lawmakers has also grown, according to congressional sources who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to talk to the press.

Staff do not trust IG Cuffari and his senior leadership to make the right decisions.

DHS OIG staff

There are several reasons why Cuffari’s credibility has taken a hit in recent months.

His belated notification to Congress in mid-July that the Secret Service and DHS had erased January 6-related texts without backing them up, possibly in violation of the Federal Records Act, has prompted the most attention.

Frustration with that reporting delay was compounded by reports that Cuffari’s top aides rescinded their request for Secret Service text messages in the summer of 2021, before reinstating their interest at the end of the year, as first reported by CNN. And, as first detailed by the Washington Post, Cuffari’s leadership team quashed efforts by watchdog staff to help DHS components extract text messages in February.

The concerns spiked further when POGO revealed that a notification to Congress of the deleted texts had been widely approved within Cuffari’s office, including by top watchdog attorneys, on April 1, but was not sent out. “These are serious allegations and diverge from the information that you previously provided me and my team,” Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), chair of the Senate homeland security committee, wrote to Cuffari.

But the uproar over the text messages brought scrutiny to how Cuffari got his current job. New details have surfaced on his alleged lack of candor in prior years, notably when he sought Senate confirmation as DHS inspector general.

A 2013 Justice Department office of inspector general report recently surfaced, revealing new information about concerns that arose when Cuffari was a mid-level employee in that watchdog office. The report focused on an investigation into a possible ethics violation by Cuffari. It said investigators “were skeptical of Cuffari’s assertion” of why he committed the violation and cited an email by Cuffari to his supervisors that contained information “materially different” from what he said in an interview.

A 2013 Justice Department office of inspector general report recently surfaced, revealing new information about concerns that arose when Cuffari was a mid-level employee in that watchdog office.

The Senate was not in possession of the 2013 report when it confirmed Cuffari in 2019, a breakdown in the vetting process that hindered its constitutional obligation to advise and consent to the president’s nominee. That investigation did come up, however, and Cuffari said he “answered the IG staff’s questions truthfully and completely.” It is unknown whether he was aware of the report’s contents at the time, but he resigned from federal service within weeks of its completion.

Last week, the Washington Post revealed that, during his confirmation hearing, Cuffari erroneously told senators that the Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency recommended him for the position of DHS inspector general. It is unclear if Cuffari was aware at the time, but the council did not actually weigh in on his suitability for the DHS watchdog job. Instead, the Post reported, it had “advised against” recommending him for the post of Pentagon inspector general and recommended the White House might want to consider nominating Cuffari for a job at a smaller agency. (While DHS is smaller than the Defense Department, it is far from a small agency. It is the third-largest cabinet department, and includes sprawling, complex, high-profile, and sensitive missions.)

A Turning Point

In their letter calling on Biden to replace their boss, the OIG staff cite a May 2022 letter by Cuffari as a turning point. Sent to the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, posted to his website, tweeted out, and emailed to his whole staff, Cuffari’s letter responded to Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who had raised questions regarding his decision-making in two watchdog projects, one on DHS’s handling of off-duty domestic violence by its law enforcement agents and another on workplace sexual misconduct.

Cuffari’s letter blamed staff “intransigence,” among other reasons, for why the sexual misconduct report has not been issued, despite its initiation in 2018 and a well-vetted draft that was sent to him for review in December 2020.

I would never have written this,” said Gordon Heddell, a former inspector general at the Pentagon and Labor Department, in remarks to the New York Times about the letter. “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘I’m leading a very dysfunctional office.’”

The staffers calling for Cuffari’s removal wrote that the inspector general “refused to take responsibility for his own actions and undermined his own career staff,” arguing that the May 2022 letter “served as a warning to all employees of what would happen if they push back against or question the IG and his team.”

“This letter deeply impacted his entire workplace and fully demonstrated his inability to be a servant leader,” they further wrote. “Instead this letter reinforced to his staff that he cares about no one but himself and his survival.”

If you are a member of the DHS OIG staff who would like to discuss these allegations of misconduct anonymously, please contact POGO via Signal at 1-202-658-5828.