Congressional Dems criticize Trump’s pick for U.S. DOT inspector general

May 22, 2020

Mark Schremmer

|

Congressional Democrats are pushing back against President Donald Trump’s decision to remove Mitch Behm as the acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation and replace him with Howard “Skip” Elliott.

Earlier this week, Rep. Peter DeFazio, chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, along with the chairs for the Committee on Oversight and Reform and the Subcommittee on Government Operations, sent letters of opposition to Elliott and DOT Secretary Elaine Chao.

“We oppose President Trump’s removal of longtime public servant Mitch Behm from his position as acting inspector general of the Department of Transportation and urge that he be immediately reinstated,” DeFazio, Carolyn Maloney, and Gerald Connolly wrote in the May 19 letter. “Mr. Behm’s removal is the latest in a series of politically motivated firings of inspector generals by President Trump. This assault on the integrity and independence of inspectors general appears to be an intentional campaign to undermine their ability to expose corruption and protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse.”

The congressional Democrats questioned the qualifications of Elliott, who has served as the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“Mr. Elliott lacks the independence, qualifications and experience necessary to be inspector general,” the letter to Chao stated. “Prior to becoming PHMSA administrator, Mr. Elliott spent his entire career as an executive in the freight rail industry. Mr. Elliott appears to have no investigatory or law enforcement experience, which leaves him unprepared to oversee the DOT Office of Inspector General.”

DeFazio, Maloney and Connolly said they were also concerned about reports that Elliott would continue his post as PHMSA administrator.

“Under this troubling arrangement, you will report to Secretary Chao as PHMSA administrator while simultaneously serving in a role that is required by law to be independent,” the letter to Elliott stated. “The inherent conflict of interest would prohibit you from having the independence necessary to conduct fair and rigorous oversight of the department and the secretary.

“Your dual appointment could severely chill whistleblower disclosures to the Office of Inspector General, because whistleblowers might fear that their identities could become known to an official still serving in the department. It also may chill communication within the Office of Inspector General if auditors or investigators are concerned that you will share information with Secretary Chao before it is appropriate.”

The letters urged Elliott to resign from at least one of the two positions and for Chao to advise President Trump to reinstate Behm as the acting inspector general.

Additionally, the congressional Democrats asked Elliott to produce the following documents and information by June 1.

  • A list of all DOT Inspector General audits, inspections, investigations, evaluations, reviews, or other engagements that were ongoing as of your appointment as acting inspector general.
  • A list of all audits, inspections, investigations, evaluations, reviews, or other engagements relating to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation that were opened between Jan. 20, 2017, and the present.
  • A list and description of any ongoing DOT Inspector General audits, inspections, investigations, evaluations, reviews, or other engagements for which the status, scope, or investigative plan was modified after your appointment as acting inspector general and a description of the modification.
  • If you remain as acting DOT inspector general, whether you agree to resign as PHMSA administrator and recuse yourself from all matters involving PHMSA and the Office of the Secretary.

Chao was asked to supply documents and communications related to the change in status of Behm as inspector general, and any evaluation of the qualifications, experience, or suitability of Elliott to serve as inspector general.

U.S. DOT secretary’s response

In a letter from Chao to the congressional Democrats dated May 21, the U.S. DOT secretary defended Elliott’s qualifications and clarified that Behm remained working as deputy inspector general.

“Your letter wholly mischaracterizes Skip Elliott’s background and experience,” Chao wrote. “Even a cursory review of his biography and publicly available Senate confirmation record would have corrected this mischaracterization.

“In fact, Skip Elliott brings decades of safety and law enforcement experience to his role as the acting inspector general … Your letter’s complete disregard for the facts about Skip Elliott’s exemplary record of service and experience only evidences that it was written to further an unfounded political narrative at the expense of one of the nation’s finest public servants.”

She also pointed out that serving as acting inspector general does not require him to resign his post as PHMSA administrator.

Behm had served as the acting inspector general since Calvin Scovell retired in January.

Pilot Flying J
Mark Schremmer

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and nearly two decades of journalism experience to our staff.