Nick and Adam detail DHS watchdog Cuffari’s early fights with his own staff, alleged ethics violations, and dubious qualifications. Maren and Nick talk with Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS), former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, about his efforts to hold Cuffari accountable.
For more from the Project On Government Oversight, sign up for our email list.
Host Maren Machles: Last time on Bad Watchdog.
Senior Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Nick Schwellenbach: We got a hold of a draft report and when we finally learned about the details. I mean, our minds were blown. We were like, “Holy shit.” Like we need to get this out as soon as possible. This is something people need to know about.
Former Border Patrol agent, now activist, Jenn Budd: You know what this is on my eye. You know what this is on my lip. And yet none of you said anything and you’re supposed to be cops? Well, the next day after that, our supervisor shows up in our classroom and tells all of us that if the women in the group don’t stop complaining about sexual assault and harassment and making these allegations and fi—actually file reports, then they assume it’s fake and it’s a lie and we need to shut the fuck up and get out of his academy, if we can’t hack it. That’s the attitude. From then on, I’m shunned by all the guys.
Director of The Constitution Project at POGO Sarah Turberville: I mean, if this is how they’re treating their colleagues and their own family members, how are they treating migrants in the middle of the desert when nobody’s watching?
[Audio from Joseph Cuffari’s confirmation hearing] Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), then-chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Good afternoon. This, uh, hearing is called to order. We are meeting today to consider the nomination of Joseph Cuffari to be the inspector general of the United States Department of Homeland Security. A, uh, pretty important position.
Maren: In this podcast, we’ve explored the inexplicable yet extremely consequential decisions that have come out of DHS watchdog Joseph Cuffari’s office. How he’s stood in the way of career staff working to hold DHS agencies accountable for broadly condemned incidents, like the use of force by Border Patrol at Del Rio, and by the Secret Service in DC’s Lafayette Square, not to mention suppressing their efforts to shed light on domestic violence and sexual misconduct in the ranks at DHS.
[Audio from Joseph Cuffari’s confirmation hearing.] Joseph Cuffari: If I am confirmed, I commit to being an honest broker of information and to seek the truth. I am mindful that the powers upon, bestowed upon an IG are vast.
Maren: And how despite a clear recommendation from career staff, he refused to alert Congress about the missing January 6th Secret Service text messages for months.
Joseph Cuffari: That I will be fair and objective in my undertakings, and if I’m confirmed, I will work with Congress to augment its vital oversight responsibilities. To the committee, I sincerely appreciate your consideration of my nomination. I look forward to answering your questions.
Maren: Now, we are going to pull back the curtain and go inside his office — from his tumultuous start to some of his most recent efforts to impede and discredit the work of his own staff.
This is a podcast about finding the truth and holding people accountable, which is essentially — and not coincidentally — the work of an inspector general.
I’m Maren Machles, and from the Project On Government Oversight, this is Bad Watchdog.
[Audio from Joseph Cuffari’s confirmation hearing.] Joseph Cuffari: Twenty-plus years in the Department of Justice as a criminal investigator.
Maren: What you’re hearing is the Senate considering Joseph Cuffari’s nomination in March 2019. To ensure they’re not beholden to the agency heads who hire them, about half of all IGs are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Cuffari’s hearing is in front of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Senator Rick Scott (R-FL): Did you, did you ever have any concern that people above you were trying to stifle your ability to investigate something and make the right thing happen?
Joseph Cuffari: No, sir.
Senator Rick Scott (R-FL): Okay, so you feel, you shouldn’t believe you’re gonna get, you know, somebody’s gonna try to compromise your ability to do your job?
Joseph Cuffari: I, I can’t speak for future events, although, uh, my commitment is if I felt that that was going to happen or was happening, I would come to this committee with my concerns.
Maren: You hear senators stressing the importance of Cuffari’s ability to remain independent, and his ability to do what is right, to work with Congress.
Senator Gary Peters (D-MI): Will you commit to responding to requests from members of Congress and particularly members, uh, of this committee in a consistent manner and, regardless of the party, of someone from this committee asking for your uh, response?
Joseph Cuffari: Senator, you have my absolute commitment to doing such a thing.
Maren: What you won’t hear if you listen back are senators asking tough questions.
Senator Rick Scott (R-FL): What’s the closest of things you’ve done in the past of this job? Was it, is there a similar job that you’ve had in the past that you, you can bring, you say, “I’m gonna bring that experience to the table and that’s why I can do a good job at this?”
Joseph Cuffari: Uh, senator, I would say that the, um, 20-plus years, um, in the U.S. Department of Justice as a criminal investigator, uh, coupled again with about 12 years with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and with the DOD Department of Defense IG collectively, uh, provides me with the skill set, uh, that I, I believe an IG, uh, needs to conduct, uh, impartial investigations.
Maren: Senators take Cuffari at his word that these experiences qualify him, despite the fact that in all of his experience in the watchdog community he’s never led an Office of Inspector General, let alone one of this magnitude, where he will be managing the work of people with significantly more experience and expertise than he has.
Former Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ): Thanks for allowing me the opportunity, uh, to speak to you about Dr. Joseph Cuffari, known as “Joe.”
Maren: They don’t ask him about the fact that his doctorate is from an institution that has been under federal scrutiny for being a “diploma mill.”
Former Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ): After leaving active duty, he spent two decades in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General, retiring in 2013 as assistant special agent in charge for the Office of Inspector General in Tucson, Arizona.
Maren: Or the fact that at his previous job at the Department of Justice, he retired just weeks after being investigated for ethical violations — but before any possible disciplinary action against him.
Maren: Nick and Adam ended up learning more about all of this when they first started looking into Cuffari in 2021.
Nick Schwellenbach: Cuffari’s own personal history is interesting in this context. So if you look at how he left the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, he came under investigation for alleged ethical violations. But a report came out, you know, in late spring of 2013, and within weeks he resigned. Experts say that the findings in that report probably would’ve been a solid basis for pursuing some discipline against him. Not necessarily termination, but potentially termination.
Maren: In the report, investigators write, in some instances, during conversations with Cuffari about these ethical violations, they were skeptical of his answers or even flat out didn’t believe them.
Nick Schwellenbach: Not being candid during interviews with investigators can be a career ender for you if you’re in federal law enforcement.
Maren: Cuffari’s nomination process was seemingly quick and sloppy. Trump nominated Cuffari six years after he resigned from the Department of Justice’s watchdog office under a cloud. At the time of his nomination, Cuffari was a GOP policy advisor. Also, while the senators should have known that Cuffari had been under investigation at the DOJ and that he got his doctorate from an at-the-time unaccredited university, for whatever reason, senators did not ask him about either during his confirmation hearing.
Former Inspector General for the Department of Defense Gordon Heddell: Mr. Cuffari did not have what I would personally believe to be the best of qualifications to have been considered for this job.
Maren: Gordon Heddell, who you met in episode 1, has been a part of this watchdog community for a long time and has quite the resume.
Gordon Heddell: I, uh, went into the United States Army… served with the United States Secret Service… I was nominated by President Clinton, uh, to become the inspector general at the Department of Labor.
Maren: After working in the oversight office at the Secret Service, Gordon went on to be the IG for the Department of Labor.
Gordon Heddell: The Obama administration brought me back to the Department of Labor.
Maren: This man has been an inspector general during three different administrations—
Gordon Heddell: President George W. Bush to be the acting inspector general at the Department of Defense.
Maren: Both Republican and Democratic.
Gordon Heddell: That brought me back to where I am today.
Maren: He took his time, building the experience he’d need to eventually lead one of the largest federal watchdog offices in our government, the inspector general for the Department of Defense. That’s why, when Gordon began to learn more about Joseph Cuffari’s past federal service, he was confused.
Gordon Heddell: That’s a very significant position in our government. [Maren: Mhm.]. One that requires tremendous, uh, intellect and ability. And he doesn’t, he needed, in my opinion, needed something before that. He needed some kind of inspector general, uh, experience that was, that would, you know, prepare him for something as big as DHS.
Maren: To be clear, Cuffari has worked in the inspector general community for a long time. But he hadn’t led an office with 700-plus people before, and his focus was on investigating individual cases, not dealing with large-scale systemic abuses like the ones we’ve been discussing over the past several episodes.
Gordon Heddell: And somewhere along the line, no one bothered to ask or to certify that he was really qualified to do this job. So now he gets the job, he becomes the inspector general, and there is enough in his, uh, performance to really raise some huge questions.
When an inspector general fails, it’s bad enough. But failures by inspectors general taint the reputation of the entire community of inspectors general. We all suffer. And the American citizen and taxpayer who relies on an IG to provide truth, their trust and confidence in the whole IG concept, is damaged. And that’s what the situation with Mr. Cuffari has done.
Maren: To get a better understanding of what Cuffari’s leadership was like, I talked to a DHS insider.
My colleague, Brandon Brockmyer, is going to be reading a transcript of that conversation, as this source and many others that Nick and Adam spoke with over the last few years fear retaliation.
So we’ll be calling this source “X.”
Department of Homeland Security insider: We had known about him for a while, um, because of the nomination process and the confirmation hearings and, you know, we all paying a lot of attention to what was being said. I think we were cautiously optimistic. There were some questions about kind of his background and experience level, um. But he did have experience in the OIG, in that community and to have come in to be the head of agency, you know, as sizeable as we were, um, that didn’t have that kinda larger management or leadership experience in the federal government. It was very surprising.
I think it was very much a kind of “let’s wait and see” sort of mode.
Maren: X recalls an immediate sense of distrust from the career staff, but also from Cuffari.
Department of Homeland Security insider: I mean, right from the get-go, right from him coming on board he did not trust our senior leadership team.
Maren: X said that instead of relying on the experience of senior staff, he walled himself off from them.
Department of Homeland Security insider: Those who were in senior leadership positions in the office have extensive experience, either with this office specifically or with another OIG, and they were all senior executives.
So, so they had, you know, so to speak, they had been certified. Have another government agency to say like, “You’re qualified for this position.” Whereas he’s coming in, you know, having, having been a 14 in a,a small regional office. Yes, still, still inspector general experience, but at a much different level and scale. I think maybe he was in a bit of a “wait and see” mode to see where loyalties lay, but um, I kinda think once those came out, yeah, the lines were sort of drawn.
Maren: Before Cuffari was even confirmed, there were people inside the watchdog office raising concerns about his qualifications. And after he assumed his new post, the situation escalated.
Cuffari was confirmed in July 2019 and by November that same year, a now-former deputy in his office had filed an official whistleblower complaint. It claimed that Cuffari stalled a report about how DHS lacked the technology they needed to track separated migrant families.
The substance of the complaint might sound familiar. The deputy said Cuffari didn’t seem to want to criticize the agency he was overseeing, going so far as to forbid the use of words like “fail” when describing agency actions.
In at least two discussions about the delayed report, the whistleblower said, Cuffari asked questions that quote “seemed to indicate a concern on his part about particular statements in the report that could be perceived as critical of the current administration.”
Typically, the place for whistleblowers to go with complaints like this is the inspector general’s office. But who watches the watchdogs?
The deputy went to two places. They made protected disclosures to members of Congress — which has the power to oversee inspectors general — and to the federal watchdog system’s official Integrity Committee.
After the whistleblower came forward, Cuffari filed a complaint of his own. He appealed to the Integrity Committee to investigate staff he alleged were “undermining” his authority. When the Integrity Committee declined to get involved, Cuffari took things into his own hands. He paid an outside law firm about 1.4 million dollars to come in and investigate his staff.
Department of Homeland Security insider: But honestly, you know, it, it kinda came across to a lot of folks as’ “Isn’t he kind of doing some of the same things that he’s accusing other folks of doing?” But, you know, I think what ultimately came out of that report was basically, [laughs] they were mean to him or they didn’t him or he didn’t like them. [Sigh.] There was no misconduct, per se. There was no criminal activity. It really sent the message that if you don’t like me and I don’t like you, this is what’s gonna happen and I’m gonna your make your life very difficult.
Maren: I want to add here, Cuffari’s investigation was controversial. Not just for the reasons that X mentioned. Ostensibly, it looked at the behavior of individuals in the watchdog office who were accused of creating a toxic work environment. Now, I’m all for rooting out toxicity in any facet of my life, but lawyers Cuffari hired also looked at the legally protected whistleblower disclosures filed through Congress and other official channels. That’s quite chilling. Those protections are in place for a reason; there should be no fear of retaliation for calling out bad actors. Especially not when those alleged bad actors are responsible for investigating abuse and misconduct in a powerful office like the DHS inspector general.
Department of Homeland Security insider: Think about some of the greatest issues that have come out at our government agencies. Reports about the overcrowding and the detention conditions after the influx of migrants across the southwest border — that came out of DHS OIG. Even the CIA OIG who, who initially came out with some of the issues about like waterboarding and the interrogation techniques that were being used by the CIA.
You know, OIGs, whether people know about them or not, are just this amazing, vital tool that’s unique to democracies. And having effective oversight like that is part of what makes our government function and make it reliable and something that people can put trust in and, uh, kinda separates from other societies.
So I, you know, I think they’re a worthwhile investment. Great, great things that, that have been done and can be done by inspector generals if they’re working for the people and the right purposes.
And that’s not the case for DHS OIG right now. And that’s why people should be concerned. It’s a disservice to the American people, to Congress, and to the department, and to the people who work at the department to not have a well-functioning OIG.
[Audio from Nick and Maren meeting Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS) in his office.]
United States Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS): Howdy.
Nick Schwellenbach: Hey, nice to meet you, Chairman Thompson. Nick.Representative Bennie Thompson: Hi, how you doing?
Maren: Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m Maren.
Representative Bennie Thompson: Good. How are you?
Maren [voiceover]: Nick and I are in Representative Bennie Thompson’s office in D.C. in November of 2022, and as a reminder, at this time, Representative Thompson chaired the House Homeland Security Oversight Committee as well as the January 6th Committee. These committees, they’re a primary way that Congress exercises its oversight powers to make sure agencies and their watchdogs are doing their jobs. When something goes wrong, the relevant committee sets out to find out why, and to get answers.
All of that’s to say that Thompson was one of the first to call attention to Cuffari’s performance, after he received several of these protected disclosures.
Nick Schwellenbach: You wrote a letter in March of 2020, um, you were already seeing warning signs about his leadership of the office. What prompted your concerns, and what was really troubling you at this point in time?
Representative Bennie Thompson: Well, we were hearing from people in the office about replacement of senior people, uh, with less senior or knowledgeable people and that the independence of the office was being compromised. So I guess the complaints kept coming and, uh, some of the complaints, as you indicated in my letter, are very troubling. We raised the flag, hoping that we would get some acknowledgement from the IG to talk about what was going on. And, uh, we did have one meeting with him and basically it was, more or less, saying none of this is true. He wanted to tell his side and his side was that these were just a bunch of employees who were sour grapes, who, uh, were not the best people.
Maren: Representative Thompson said that his office has worked with DHS IG staff before and found their claims to be credible.
Representative Bennie Thompson: And for him to tell me that, you know, some of these people are, you know, just people who don’t like him or just don’t like his, uh, management style was not, I mean, I didn’t, I didn’t believe him.
It was clear that, uh, there were problems. And even after that meeting, uh, the problems and questions continued.
Maren: Inside the watchdog office, as proposals for investigations into incidents like the Secret Service’s involvement in Lafayette Square were being shot down, confusion and frustration seemed to grow among some of the staff.
Department of Homeland Security insider: I think there were a lot of questions, um, especially in the earlier instances. “Okay, can you provide an explanation? Can you tell us why? Can you tell us what to do, uh, to kinda revise this so that it can get approved? You know, I think that this is important. So what’s a different angle that we can look at?” But as time went on, it became clear that they were not interested in having those conversations or being questioned or second guessed.
Maren: In response to Lafayette Square specifically, Representative Thompson as well as several other House committee chairs co-authored a letter demanding Cuffari investigate the use of force.
Nick Schwellenbach: What was your reaction when you learned that Cuffari decided not to look at the Secret Service’s use of force at Lafayette Square?
Representative Bennie Thompson: In my estimation, he was playing politics. I’ve been in Washington almost 30 years and I’ve seen demonstrations far larger than that and I’ve seen responses, accordingly.
But that June Black Lives Matter protest didn’t exhibit any of the things that would warrant that level of response by DHS or any other law enforcement agency. And just like January 6th, Lafayette Square played out in full view of the public. And, and so now you are telling the public what they saw with their own eyes didn’t rise to the level of the IG’s review, I think on its face, says that the IG is just wrong.
Maren: The day after Nick and Adam published their Lafayette Square investigation, Representative Thompson held a Homeland Security Committee hearing in which Representative Val Demings asked Cuffari point blank why he refused to investigate what happened.
[Audio from House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Oversight of the DHS Inspector General.] Former Representative Val Demings (D-FL): According to the Project On Government Oversight, as a result of your refusal to review the incident at Lafayette Square, questions about the Secret Service involvement and other questions remain unanswered. I’m concerned that, in the absence of clear criteria and other considerations, it creates an environment where politics, the politics of the moment can influence those decisions. So, Mr. Cuffari, could you tell me what objective criteria did you rely on to decline Congress’s requests to review the events in Lafayette Park?
Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari: Uh, thank you ma’am so just so, um, the record’s clear any suggestion by POGO or by the Washington Post or anyone else that I pull punches on conducting robust oversight of the Secret Service for political reasons is a complete falsehood.
Maren: As you well know by now, nothing changed after Cuffari was questioned about Lafayette Square. His decisions not to investigate abuse, to soft pedal domestic violence findings, suppress sexual harassment reports, and slow roll notifications to Congress continued to raise concerns.
Here’s X again.
Department of Homeland Security insider: That was shocking beyond, beyond belief, and it really, I think, made people so much more cautious.
Maren: X said decisions about which investigations to take on and what findings made it into the final reports sent the message that some areas, like certain law enforcement practices or disciplinary procedures, are off limits.
Department of Homeland Security insider: What I know from those situations, it sounds as though someone in a senior leadership, leadership position was influencing what ultimately was reported in, in an oversight product, um, without reviewing, you know, the work papers or the analysis that went into it. Um, and kind of making those judgment calls as to what should be reported out. That goes against kind of, you know, objectivity and independence.
Maren: Nick and Adam heard from several sources that the tension in the office was building as a result of Cuffari’s leadership. And in September 2022, Nick received a copy of an anonymous letter addressed to President Biden. It was signed, “Concerned DHS OIG employees representing every program office at every grade level (for fear of retaliation, we cannot identify ourselves).”
Adam said this letter confirmed a lot of what they already knew, but it also made clear the size and scope of frustration in Cuffari’s office.
Former POGO Senior Journalist Adam Zagorin: This particular anonymous letter was, um, consistent with literally hundreds of things that we had learned independently of this letter and prior to its, to when we obtained it. It was consistent with what many people were saying and frankly, including the sexual harassment survey where all of these people said that when they reported things, it was detrimental to their career. I mean, this is the story of an agency.
Maren: The letter reads quote, “We need help. We can no longer be silent when faced with continuous mismanagement of DHS OIG at its highest levels… A true leader would recognize the effect of his actions on his workforce and understand that the right thing to do would be to step aside. However, IG Cuffari is not a true leader. He instead acts to weaken and undercut his career staff at every step. He no longer has the support of his workforce.”
It cites Cuffari’s May 2022 letter to Congress as a turning point for staff. You may remember this letter from last episode — the one where he threw his staff under the bus to explain why he had suppressed the sexual harassment report.
He wrote quote, “The report has been plagued by problems from the outset.” He goes on to say the major holdups were from staff withholding information, dragging their feet, and refusing to remove or change parts of the report that he referred to as unsupported inferences and conclusions.
He not only sent that to Congress. He emailed it to all staff, put it on the website, and Tweeted it out. The anonymous letter refers back to this:
Quote, “This letter reinforced to his staff that he cares about no one but himself and his survival. His actions do not represent his 700-plus workforce. His actions continue to damage his own and DHS OIG’s reputation. His actions are not the actions of a true leader. His actions embarrass the entire agency. His actions impede and greatly hinder our mission.”
Nick Schwellenbach: The people who signed this letter don’t feel that Cuffari has their backs and is supporting his own staff.
And they feel that he just looks to them as a convenient excuse for problems that have happened under his watch. “Look, it’s not me, it’s my staff. My staff suck, you know.” But he’s the boss, you know? When you’re the boss, you don’t throw your staff under the bus, especially publicly.
Maren: Here’s X one last time.
Department of Homeland Security insider: I think that’s indicative of his leadership style and the way he handles the work here at OIG. And also look what happens when you disagree with me. Look what happens when you push back. I’m going to publicly embarrass you in front of your peers, in front of Congress, in front of — I mean, I think it was posted on the website and Tweeted out again, almost like a point of pride.
What does it say about you as a leader that you can’t take responsibility for what’s happening in your office? If people in the IG’s office don’t feel comfortable speaking up, then how can they expect those in the department or those in the general public to be able to speak up and speak to the IG and make those allegations that are so vital?
Maren: As you’ve heard, the anonymous letter is scathing. And it covers everything we’ve talked about in this podcast and more.
It refers to “refusing to move forward with important proposed work without reason.” That’s Lafayette Square and Del Rio.
It also refer to “delaying the release of audits, inspections, and investigations, sometimes for months or even years.” That’s the sexual misconduct report.
“Significantly editing reports to remove key findings, which weakens the impact of the reports.” That’s the domestic violence report.
And finally, “interfering with staff efforts to gather information necessary to perform independent oversight.” That’s January 6th.
Maren: Cuffari’s decisions have not only created tension in his own office, but sparked public and congressional outrage. And yet, as of January 2023, when we’re recording this episode, Cuffari hasn’t been removed or resigned. In fact, he sent an all-staff email in July of 2022, after all of these calls for accountability. He wrote, quote, “Thank you for the past three years — I look forward to many more to come!”
Like me, you might be thinking, uh, what the heck? How can someone with such an important job be so bad at it and still be allowed to keep it? And how do we ensure that this doesn’t happen again and that we have good watchdogs in the future?
Well, in our sixth and final episode, we will be exploring those exact questions. We’ll hear from those who have tried to hold Cuffari and his top aides accountable and we’ll interrogate why the systems in place to prevent a bad watchdog are clearly not working. And we’ll go back to where we started, and tell you about something else Cuffari decided wasn’t worth sharing about January 6th.
Nick Schwellenbach: Can you recall any instance where he has taken responsibility for any mistakes he’s made?
Representative Bennie Thompson: No. No. No instance.
Gordon Heddell: There’s enough smoke here to, to know that there’s a fire burning somewhere. There’s a problem here.
[Audio from House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Oversight of the DHS Inspector General.] Representative Bennie Thompson: Inspector generals must not shy away from the politically sensitive topics. The committee will be following up on these very troubling allegations.
POGO Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Liz Hempowicz: The president has access to all of this information that would allow him to go above and beyond what is required of him to explain why this removal is legitimate and in service of independent oversight, not to undermine it. Um, and the fact that he’s not doing that, to me is a real problem.
That’s next time on Bad Watchdog. If you like what you heard, please rate and review the show.
Bad Watchdog is a production of Investigations and Research at the Project On Government Oversight. It’s written, produced, and hosted by me, Maren Machles, and based on investigations by Nick Schwellenbach and Adam Zagorin. Additional research by Julienne McClure. Edited by Julia Delacroix and Brandon Brockmyer. Fact checking by Amaya Phillips and Neil Gordon. This episode was mixed by Natalie Jablonski. Our theme music was written and recorded by Will Wrigley. POGO’s director of investigations and research is Brandon Brockmyer. POGO’s editorial director is Julia Delacroix. Find out more about our work to investigate and improve the federal government at www.pogo.org.
Maren Machles - Host
Nick Schwellenbach - Guest
Gordon Heddell - Guest
Bennie Thompson - Guest
Adam Zagorin - Guest