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Bad Watchdog Episode 6: The Perfect Storm

Feb 23, 2023

Maren returns to the missing January 6 texts scandal with a fresh perspective, some new evidence, and finally asks the million-dollar question: Why hasn’t this guy been removed from power yet? Experts weigh reforms to the inspector general system that would improve accountability for bad watchdogs. Maren gives Cuffari’s staff the final word.


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[Music plays.]

Host Maren Machles: Last time on Bad Watchdog.

Former Inspector General for the Department of Defense Gordon Heddell: Somewhere along the line, no one bothered to ask or to certify that he was really qualified to do this job.

United States Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS): And just like January 6th, Lafayette Square played out in full view of the public. And so now you are telling the public what they saw with their own eyes didn’t rise to the level of the IG review, I think on its face, says that the IG is just wrong.

[Audio from Joseph Cuffari’s confirmation hearing.] Joseph Cuffari: 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.

Senior Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Nick Schwellenbach: At least the people who signed this letter don’t feel that Cuffari has their backs and is supporting his own staff. “Look, it’s not me, it’s my staff. My staff suck.” But he’s the boss, you know? When you’re the boss, you don’t throw your staff under the bus, especially publicly.

Department of Homeland Security insider: Look what happens when you push back. I’m going to publicly embarrass you. If people in an 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?

[Music stops.]

Maren: Throughout this podcast, we have looked closely at the watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security, Joseph Cuffari. We’ve talked about the times he’s failed to investigate or dragged his feet responding to some of the biggest moments in recent American history — from the summer when mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were met with violence by federal agents, to the abuse of migrants on the southern border, to the storming of our nation’s Capitol. And it’s that last one, that’s the most recent time Cuffari failed to act.

Testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, before the January 6th Committee: I noticed Bobby Engel, who was the head of Mr. Trump’s security detail, sitting in a chair, just looking somewhat discombobulated and a little lost.

Maren: This is Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony in front of the January 6th Committee, part of which you heard at the beginning of this podcast. But I think it’s important to hear it again now that we have the context of how Cuffari and the Homeland Security watchdog office fits into the January 6th Investigation, and how missing Secret Service text messages could have been the key to resolving disputed accounts of what happened on that day.

Testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson: Tony proceeded to tell me that when the president got in the Beast, he was under the impression from Mr. Meadows that the off-the-record movement to the Capitol was still possible and likely to happen, but that Bobby had more information. So once the president had gotten into the vehicle with Bobby, he thought that they were going up to the Capitol.

And when Bobby had relayed to him, “We’re not, we don’t have the assets to do it. It’s not secure. We’re going back to the West Wing,” the president had very strong, a very angry response to that. Um, Tony described him as being irate. The president said something to the effect of “I’m the f’ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now.”

[Music plays.]

Maren: In this final episode, we are coming full circle, to where we started — January 6th and Cuffari’s delay in telling Congress about missing Secret Service text messages until public interest in those messages began to intensify. I’ll tell you about some more information Cuffari never revealed to Congress. We’ll look at how the mechanisms for holding inspectors general accountable kicked into gear, once Adam and Nick’s reporting came out. And we’ll wrap up this story by looking at the weaknesses in those oversight mechanisms that allow a bad watchdog to stay in power, despite congressional outrage and a staff that no longer supports it.

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.

[Music stops.]

Maren: You might remember from last episode, when we went to visit Representative Bennie Thompson, that he held one of the primary oversight roles in Congress, as the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. If Cuffari wasn’t doing his job, Thompson could hold a public hearing to ask questions and interview witnesses, or send letters demanding explanations. So, obviously after records critical to understanding the attack on the U.S. Capitol went missing, Representative Thompson would have some questions for Cuffari about how this could have happened.

Because Representative Thompson also chaired the January 6th Committee, he was front and center during Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony. And what happened to the Secret Service’s records from that day was something we were certainly interested to learn more about when we met with him on the Hill.

Nick Scwhellenbach: When Cassidy Hutchinson provided her public testimony about — I think we can all agree — the craziness and, and terrible events on January 6th and her account of what President Trump did that day and wanted to do that day, I mean, what was, what was your initial reaction to her testimony about Trump’s interactions with the Secret Service and what were the immediate questions that came to your mind about what the Secret Service may or may not know?

Representative Bennie Thompson: We felt the need to try to burrow down and get a little more information. The fact that the Secret Service did not share some of that information with us, it’s very concerning. That, that, allegation is made, being made and, and the fact that there’s no discernible argument that it didn’t occur.

Maren: Hutchinson’s testimony about the president’s Secret Service detail was explosive, driving days of coverage and conversation on cable news and social media. And like I said at the beginning of this story, for a second, Cuffari looked like a hero because he raised alarms about the missing text messages that could have confirmed what Hutchinson was alleging. But as we now know, Cuffari sat on this information for months and vetoed staff suggestions to proactively recover those texts.

There’s something else though. In the midst of all this backlash, Cuffari still remained silent about a whole other batch of missing agency records from January 6th. A month after Hutchinson’s testimony — and Cuffari finally notifying Congress about the missing Secret Service text messages — Nick and Adam published another investigation.

Nick Schwellenbach: It turns out the text messages from Chad Wolf, who was the acting DHS secretary, and from Ken Cuccinelli, the deputy DHS acting secretary at the time, also have been lost and were not appropriately backed up before their phones were wiped.

So there’s a whole lot of missing records that potentially could shed light on January 6th.

Maren: This is big. Wolf and Cucinelli were the #1 and #2 officials at the Department of Homeland Security on January 6th. You might remember the name Chad Wolf from an earlier episode. Even though he was leading DHS, he was never Senate confirmed; he was acting secretary. And the
Government Accountability Office recommended looking at whether or not his appointment was legal, but the office that would investigate that declined to look into it. That office, of course, was Cuffari’s.

Like Chad Wolf, Ken Cuccinelli was appointed to his role in an “acting” capacity — he was acting deputy secretary. If his name sounds familiar, it might be because you heard that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, asked Cuccinelli if he could authorize seizing voting machines after the election.

He couldn’t and didn’t.

But there’s good evidence to suggest that both Wolf and Cuccinelli would have been aware of the steps Trump was taking around January 6th to overturn the 2020 election.

And, just like the Secret Service agents who were with the president and vice president during the attack on the Capitol, Wolf and Cuccinelli’s text messages from that time were erased.

Gone.

[Music plays.]

Cuffari never shared this information with Congress. What if Cuffari had done his job by revealing these missing messages as soon as he became aware of them? Well, just days after Nick and Adam’s story on the missing texts from DHS leadership was published, the National Archives and Records Administration wrote to DHS demanding that the agency determine whether messages from Wolf, Cuccinelli, and other senior leaders had been lost, and review whether their procedures for switching out phones comply with federal record-keeping policies. Ultimately, the National Archives and Records Administration expanded its rules requiring all federal agencies to save government electronic communications.

According to a memo that ABC News obtained on August 4, DHS Secretary Mayorkas ordered a review of the agency’s electronic document retention policies and announced that the agency will halt wiping political appointees’ phones until the review is complete.

Nick and Adam essentially did Cuffari’s job for him. And it shows us that when there’s a good watchdog in place to hold these agencies accountable, policies are made and change happens. It shouldn’t have been left to Nick and Adam and other media outlets, but it was.

The investigations into Cuffari’s handling of January 6th records also showed Congress and the public just how serious the problems inside the DHS watchdog office were. We’ve chronicled the ways Joseph Cuffari’s office has dropped the ball time and time again, but this was a whole new level. There’s an attempted insurrection — an attack on the Capitol of the United States — and nobody can access the text messages that were sent and received by the leaders of the Department of Homeland Security as it unfolded?

People wanted answers. And this is a moment where the oversight system in place for IGs kicked in.

Many in Congress called for Cuffari to be removed from the investigation into the missing text messages. Senator Dick Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said Cuffari should no longer be entrusted with the investigation and asked the Department of Justice to step in.

Senator Gary Peters, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent letters to both Cuffari and Secretary Mayorkas demanding an explanation for the missing texts. To Cuffari, he wrote, quote, “These are serious allegations and diverge from the information that you previously provided me and my team… Mishandling these materials could seriously affect our ability as a nation to understand what happened that day.”

Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Bennie Thompson, the chairs of the House Oversight and Homeland Security committees, wrote to Cuffari, demanding he make his deputy inspectors available for transcribed interviews and calling for Cuffari to recuse himself from the investigation. Quote, “We are writing with grave new concerns over your lack of transparency and independence, which appear to be jeopardizing the integrity of a crucial investigation run by your office… Your office may have taken steps to cover up the extent of missing records, raising further concerns about your ability to independently and effectively perform your duties as Inspector General (IG).”

[Music stops.]

We went to interview Representative Bennie Thompson in November of 2022, so at this point he had been investigating what occurred on that day for more than a year.

Nick Schwellenbach: IG Cuffari has refused to provide these senior officials for transcribed interviews. He’s refused to turn over records. Um, what do you make of IG Cuffari’s unwillingness to cooperate?

Representative Bennie Thompson: Well, again, it’s again very disappointing that an IG would damage a report so important to this country, uh, by not providing witnesses and other information that could lend to greater accuracy for our report. Uh, you’ve not produced a report nor have you produced the information. It obviously gives one the impression that you have something to hide or that you’re protecting someone.

[Music plays.]

Maren: Representative Thompson did exercise some of his oversight authority over the DHS watchdog soon after Cuffari took over the role in July 2019. Thompson met with Cuffari early on to try to intervene in what looked like an office going off the rails. If you remember from last episode, that was the meeting, Thompson said, where Cuffari basically called his staff’s complaints nothing more than sour grapes.

Since then, he and other congressional leaders have called attention to Cuffari’s performance publicly. Here’s Representative Thompson in April of 2022 at a committee hearing, raising concerns about Cuffari’s management.

[Audio from House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Oversight of the DHS Inspector General.] Representative Bennie Thompson: In 2019, Inspector General Cuffari was confirmed. Since then, the committee has received several complaints from OIG employees about management of the office.

Maren: His hesitance to publish reports...

[Audio from House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Oversight of the DHS Inspector General.] Representative Bennie Thompson: A report that takes years to release allows problems to persist unchecked.

Maren: And his refusal to investigate some matters at all.

[Audio from House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Oversight of the DHS Inspector General.] Representative Bennie Thompson: Just yesterday, the Washington Post and Project On Government Oversight published reports that had called into question Inspector General’s Cuffari’s handling of politically sensitive topics. Inspector generals must not shy away from the politically sensitive topics or allow political considerations to affect their work. The committee will be following up on these very troubling allegations.

[Music stops.]

Gordon Heddell: If it was just one situation, I think it would be easier to say he just doesn’t understand his job.

Maren: Here’s Gordon Heddell again.

Gordon Heddell: But when it happens repeatedly, as has happened with Mr. Cuffari, there’s enough smoke here to, to know that there’s a fire burning somewhere. And so it no longer is about whether he knows his job. Maybe a combination of not knowing his job and being biased for some reason. But that’s what he leaves us with. We don’t know for sure what’s behind it, but what he leaves us with by not following through, by not answering why he omitted this or why he didn’t investigate that, it leaves everyone else thinking, “There’s a problem here.”

Maren: Cuffari isn’t the first watchdog to face criticism, not even the first at DHS. Recent Acting IG John Kelly was accused of watering down reports. Charles Edwards, who served as an acting IG from 2011 to 2013, pleaded guilty in 2022 to theft of proprietary software and sensitive databases from the OIG. This is a powerful position, rife with opportunities for corruption and mismanagement. And as I’ve learned more about the power these watchdogs wield, I keep running up against this question: Who is watching the watchdogs?

[Music plays.]

Representative Bennie Thompson: And I really wish that the IG for DHS would share information with us in a timely manner. But that has not in some instances been the case.

Maren: How can he be held accountable for that? For the job that he’s done?

Representative Bennie Thompson: Well, I think, uh, you know, sunshine and truth is the best disinfectant.

Maren: But in Cuffari’s case, the spotlight has been blazing for quite some time.

[Music stops.]

So, what’s supposed to happen next? How is the system supposed to handle a bad watchdog, like Cuffari?

Adam Zagorin: There is this investigation by CIGIE.

Maren: CIGIE, the investigatory body that Adam is referring to here, is The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, specifically its Integrity Committee. This is one of those official channels I was talking about earlier, where individuals can file complaints against inspectors general and senior staff.

When it comes to Cuffari, the committee is investigating whether or not he retaliated against some former members of his staff when he hired a law firm to investigate them for insubordination. And while it’s great that some entity in the federal government is looking closely at the DHS IG office, CIGIE doesn’t have a reputation for holding IGs accountable in a meaningful way. The committee usually does an investigation, writes up a report with recommendations, and then files it away. It has absolutely no power to remove an IG. And these investigations can sometimes drag on for years. That’s a long time to wait for someone to right the ship.

So, what other avenues are there for holding a bad watchdog accountable? Well, the president can remove an IG. And Trump showed just how easy that is to do.

POGO Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Liz Hempowicz: President Trump was firing inspectors general left and right. If they, um, if they displeased him [laughs]. Um, you know, it’s not how he said it always. He did say it sometimes. Um, but there were, and there were no consequences. Um, because there are no limits to when a president can remove an inspector general.

There should be, uh, there aren’t, um, but what there is, is a requirement for the president to explain why he is making that removal, um, and do so before that removal is final.

Maren: Here’s Liz Hempowicz again, from POGO — she’s the inspector general nerd. Liz said it would be understandable if a fear of angering the president, particularly one with a penchant for firing watchdogs, could have driven some of Cuffari’s decision making.

Liz Hempowicz: In that environment it is, I don’t wanna be too generous, but it is a little bit understandable why an inspector general — who is a human being, right — uh, um, maybe wouldn’t want to take up investigations that might anger a president who has made it very clear that they will remove an inspector general for getting on their bad side. But also, even though that is understandable on a human level, it is not acceptable, um, as a member of the public who, again, the inspector general community exists as it does to do the work that it does independently and apolitically, to gain and build public trust in government. And so if you were just looking out for number one, um, you are not meeting your mission at all.

Maren: From April through May 2020, Trump removed or replaced five inspectors general. His blasé attitude when it came to hiring and firing these watchdogs was in danger of becoming the new normal. And it ended up creating the perfect storm for Cuffari to keep his job after Biden was elected.

Liz Hempowicz: At that same time, there was a presidential election going on, and what Joe Biden said, who’s now president and who’s now Cuffari’s boss, what he said at the time, he made a really ham-fisted promise that he would never fire an inspector general. And that’s absolutely wrong, right? I mean, again, he was answering to Trump firing all these inspectors general without giving a good reason for it.

Um, but the answer is not to go so far in the opposite direction that you say, “You can keep your job as an inspector general, no matter what you do.” That’s not, you know, that’s too far in the opposite direction. Like we need to both allow inspectors general the space to do their work without political pressure, um, but we also need to hold people accountable when they don’t do their jobs. And I think that’s what’s missing here. And, and I think to me, the, the potential danger there is that we, you know, may be breaking the best independent oversight system we have in the, in the federal government, as we speak.

[Music plays.]

Maren: I apologize in advance for using a very cliché phrase, but it sounds to me like the epitome of a broken system, if you have one president gunning for any IGs who disagree with him or make his administration look bad, and the next vowing to never take out any IGs for any reason. I don’t really understand how both of those things can even happen. Isn’t there a standard, consistent way for ensuring we have good watchdogs?

Liz Hempowicz: I think the answer there is you have to create a legal guardrail around removing an inspector general for doing their job.

Maren: Sorry. Isn’t, isn’t there already? Isn’t there already a legal guardrail for removing an IG?

Liz Hempowicz: No.

Maren: There is not.

Liz Hempowicz: Nothing, nothing. The president can remove an inspector general for literally any reason. They can remove them for doing their job well. Um, what, all they have to do, and this is not a limit.

And so I like wanna just be really clear, the only requirement on the president is to communicate to Congress why they’re removing the inspector general. Now, Congress, at the time that they passed that into law was like, "This is gonna keep a president from firing inspectors general for any bad reason.”

It’s like, no, it’s not.

[Maren and Liz laugh.]

It obviously hasn’t, right? Like, you know, so it was intended to serve as a guardrail, but it is failing spectacularly at that. And so there are absolutely no limits to when a president can remove an inspector general. Um, and Congress does not seem inclined to change that, but that is the answer to one side of it.

And the answer to the other side of it is a president that has a backbone that says, right, like I think at this point the president is not doing anything about Cuffari because he’s afraid that it will look political. And, and that to me, Is, is, I mean, I’m speechless, right? Like I think you have every, you, 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 again, is, you know, is a real problem.

Maren: But while the institutional safeguards currently in place to deal with a Bad Watchdog appear to be broken, people within the watchdog office are fighting to expose the damage that Cuffari is doing. Those in the ranks, the ones who honestly have the most to lose and are in the most thankless positions of anyone are the ones who are speaking the loudest and holding Cuffari accountable. Here’s X again.

Department of Homeland Security insider: I do remember, you know, early in my career, in the oversight community, I was told, you know, treat this work kind of as the last job you’ll ever have.

You know, you’re not gonna make friends here. Not to say you’re gonna make enemies, but you’re certainly not gonna make a lot of friends in an oversight role, and you have to be okay with that in order to do your job properly and effectively. You can’t care anymore about that stuff. It’s not about you, it’s about the service you provide.

And I dunno if that’s a sentiment or I guess a value that is by all of those is the senior leadership positions at DHS OIG right now.

Maren: When Cuffari stands in the way of investigations into use of force on peaceful protestors, or abuse of migrants, or domestic violence and sexual misconduct, when his inactions silence and minimize human and civil rights violations coming from DHS, or obstruct investigations into whether the president of the United States encouraged a coup, it’s shocking and enraging to hear about. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to work in an office that many Americans never think about, and have your attempts to do this work be shot down, again and again.

Department of Homeland Security insider: It’s just disheartening. Yeah. Like you said, nobody joins the OIG because it’s a cool, sexy, fun job, you know. You know, there are people who don’t like the government. And within the government there are people who don’t like DHS. But then in DHS, the most disliked group is the inspector general’s office. So why would you voluntarily put yourself in that position unless you really felt strongly about the mission? Um, and those are the people you want, right? So, yeah it’s, it’s hard.

[Music plays.]

Maren: I don’t know if there is a clear way to close out this story, because the truth is the story really isn’t over. But maybe I’ll close out by going back to the anonymous letter from this past fall that pleaded with the president to remove Cuffari. I’ll give that last word to those who have put their careers and livelihoods on the line to get this watchdog office back on track.

“President Biden,

“The mission of DHS OIG is to provide independent oversight and promote excellence, integrity, and accountability within DHS. Our work ranges from southwest border immigration, cyber security, domestic terrorism, airport security, to emergency management. The results of our reviews and the recommendations we make affect the American people at every level. Therefore, the highest priorities of an inspector general are integrity and independence. IG Cuffari and his inner circle of senior leaders have fallen short in these areas time and time again.

“We cannot complete our mission with IG Cuffari in his position. In order to do our jobs successfully and with honor, we ask for your help to ensure that IG Cuffari and his senior staff (namely Kristen Fredricks) step aside. He is unwilling to fulfill his mission. DHS OIG will continue to fail under his disastrous leadership. The missions of DHS and the OIG are too important to remain in the hands of IG Cuffari and his front office. You are the only one who can help us before DHS OIG are forever damaged by IG Cuffari. We need help.”

[Music changes.]

If you enjoyed the show, and maybe even want a season two, please rate and review Bad Watchdog.

Bad Watchdog is a production of Investigations and Research at the Project On Government Oversight. It was 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.

[Music stops.]