Management and operational challenges plagued the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General for years, hurting its ability to effectively carry out its oversight mission, according to preliminary findings from the Government Accountability Office.
Reports had to be recalled, allegations of improper conduct were leveled against senior leadership, and there has been frequent leadership turnover in recent years at the office.
“In the past 6 years, DHS OIG has faced a number of challenges that have affected its ability to carry out its oversight mission effectively,” GAO Homeland Security and Justice Team Director Chris Currie told the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday, according to his prepared testimony.
The issues are “longstanding” and span multiple leaders and administrators, Currie said.
The hearing followed reports that DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari blocked investigations into the Secret Service’s involvement in last summer’s Lafayette Square incident, when peaceful protesters were cleared from the square ahead of former President Donald Trump’s walk to a neighboring church for a photo-op, as well as the agency’s handling of Covid-19.
On Tuesday, the Project On Government Oversight published a report saying that the agency’s career staff had recommended the investigations.
Cuffari, only the third Senate-confirmed DHS inspector general, told lawmakers Wednesday that any suggestion that he “pulled punches” for political reasons is a “complete falsehood.”
His office has four ongoing projects looking at the Secret Service, but not at the Lafayette Square incident, he said.
Cuffari said he coordinated with his colleague in the Department of the Interior, whose Park Police was responsible for security of Lafayette Square.
The Department of Interior inspector general agreed to “take a look at the small footprint of Secret Service’s involvement in that matter,” Cuffari said, adding that there will be a section in the Department of the Interior’s final report, which is coming out shortly, dealing with the Secret Service’s role.
Cuffari said he believes that that is adequate oversight into the issue based on “limited resources.”
“In both of these cases, we determined that resources would have a higher impact elsewhere,” DHS IG spokesperson Erica Paulson said in a statement.
The GAO plans to complete its review in the coming months. Currie described a “very high” number of recommendations when looking at the management of one government office. The final response from the Office of the Inspector General is due May 12.
In 2017 and 2018, the inspector general retracted 13 audit reports after an internal review found those reports may not have adhered to government auditing standards.
In the summer of 2020, the inspector general announced the termination of a member of the office’s leadership and that another member was placed on administrative leave, the GAO wrote. The DHS inspector general hired a law firm to review the conduct of these two individuals, as well as a third former leader.
The investigation concluded that a senior leader, with the assistance of the other two individuals, “engaged in unprofessional conduct to the detriment” of the office and its mission.
Cuffari said that for the past 21 months, he has “worked diligently” to build a senior leadership team and “address the issues that have plagued our office.”
“Our ship is heading in the right direction,” he added.
Concerns about the internal workings of the Homeland Security Inspector General Office have deep roots. Wednesday’s hearing stems from a 2019 bicameral, bipartisan request calling on the GAO to investigate the office after allegations of misconduct, abuse of resources and impaired independence from employees within the office.
In December 2019, the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees wrote to the GAO comptroller general asking for a review into the IG office, including the internal complaint process, organizational structure, hiring process and budget execution.
“For instance, it has come to our attention that DHS OIG employees have filed numerous complaints of misconduct against each other over the past few years, which appear to have had significant implications on the office’s operations,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter also raised concerns about hiring that occurred between the nomination and confirmation of the current inspector general, and how such hiring “may have contributed” to the office’s “multi-million dollar budget shortfall.”