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Policy Letter

POGO Calls on President Biden to Remove DHS IG Joseph Cuffari

President Joseph R. Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Biden:

In order to preserve the integrity of the independent inspectors general system and to begin counteracting the pervasive culture of impunity at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), we urge you to take swift and decisive action to address the chilling lack of independence demonstrated in multiple instances by DHS Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, who was under investigation as of February of this year by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s (CIGIE) Integrity Committee. While POGO has said in the past that it would be reasonable to place Cuffari on administrative leave pending the findings of a CIGIE investigation, our enclosed reporting reveals such extraordinary and improper deference to DHS officials that we call on you to immediately remove Cuffari from his position as DHS inspector general.1

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption, abuse of power, and when the government fails to serve the public or silences those who report wrongdoing. We champion reforms to achieve a more effective, ethical, and accountable federal government that safeguards constitutional principles.

As an organization, we vigilantly monitor the circumstances around how and why a president removes inspectors general. We have not hesitated to call for removals of inspectors general that, for lack of reasonable and detailed explanations to Congress and the public, undermine the integrity and nonpartisan nature of the inspector general community.2 Nor do we, with sufficient explanation, hesitate to call for the removal of an inspector general who is not upholding the office’s statutory mandate to prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement within their affiliated federal agency or entity. For example, we called for you to remove Federal Housing Finance Agency Inspector General Laura Wertheimer, and called for the Securities and Exchange Commission to remove its inspector general, Carl Hoecker — both of whom abused their authority and undermined the integrity reasonably expected of inspectors general.3

POGO’s most recent investigation documents an unreleased survey in which more than 10,000 employees at DHS law enforcement components said they have experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, part of an unpublished report that Cuffari still has not released, even though the survey was conducted from fiscal years 2012 to 2018. The same POGO investigation documents Cuffari’s signed instructions resulting in the removal of evidence from a 2020 report showing that Customs and Border Protection, a DHS component, substantiated domestic violence charges in 30 cases involving its employees — then continued to allow them access to government firearms.

That latest investigation is enclosed, as are previous POGO investigations which revealed that Cuffari quashed a pair of investigations involving the Secret Service that had been recommended by the agency’s career staff, that he repeatedly impeded and delayed two ongoing investigations into alleged intelligence manipulation and whistleblower retaliation, and that he may have illegally “retaliated” against former high-ranking employees within the DHS inspector general office.4

Cuffari’s lack of independence contributes to a culture of impunity at DHS and its components. Time and time again, Cuffari has used the authority of his office to bury instances of systemic wrongdoing and perpetuated an environment in which dysfunctional and predatory behavior goes unpunished. This should be deeply concerning to you and anyone else committed to the principles of accountability, transparency, and oversight in the federal government.

Cuffari’s failure to uphold the standards of his office undermines the legitimacy of the inspectors general system. As independent watchdogs tasked with the enormous responsibility of conducting oversight and strengthening accountability, inspectors general themselves must be held to the highest ethical standard. As Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, has said, “Inspectors general must be pure as the driven snow because if they’re not all their work is tainted.”5 Cuffari has never even come close, repeatedly tainting the office’s work and allowing misconduct to be swept under the rug. Our investigations show that during his tenure as DHS inspector general, Cuffari has consistently compromised his independence by deferring to DHS management — which is unbefitting of his office and betrays the trust placed in him by the American public.

Cuffari must be held accountable for his actions. As an organization that has a longstanding history of advocating on behalf of a strong inspectors general system, we call for you to remove Cuffari. As long as he is inspector general, Cuffari is both a threat to the health of all independent inspectors general and a reminder that efforts to take corrective action against waste, fraud, and abuse lack the necessary independence needed to truly hold DHS officials accountable for wrongdoing.

Danielle Brian