May 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Democrats warn Transportation Department on watchdog's removal

President Donald Trump conducts a cabinet meeting with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (L)

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and President Trump during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in 2018. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Democratic chairs of three House panels demanded Tuesday that President Trump immediately reinstate Mitchell Behm, who was the acting Department of Transportation inspector general until he was replaced over the weekend.

Why it matters: Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao they're concerned Behm was replaced in "an effort to undermine" their investigation into "possible conflicts of interest," including allegations that her office "was giving preferential treatment to Kentucky," where her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is seeking re-election.

  • "Any attempt by you or your office to interfere with the Office of Inspector General's investigation of yourself is illegal and will be thoroughly examined by our committees," they wrote.
  • The Democrats said in a statement the decision to replace Behm with Howard Elliott was "the latest in a series of politically motivated firings."
  • Of note: The DOT told Axios that Behn was never officially appointed acting IG.

Details: The Democrats also sent a letter to Elliott, saying that conflicts of interest arise from him taking on the role of acting DOT IG while still the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

  • "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," they wrote. "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 other side: The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a DOT spokesperson said in a statement to Axios' Alayna Treene that the letter is "not factual" as Behm "was never designated the Acting IG."

  • "Mr. Behm was not removed," the spokesperson said. "He continues to serve in his long-time role as Deputy Inspector General as he was."
  • Behm is listed on the DOT website and in an April news release as the acting inspector general of the agency.
  • But the DOT spokesperson told Treene that Behm "was performing the duties of the IG during an absence but was never designated that. So the website is slightly incorrect."
  • "Mr. Elliott will bring decades of valuable expertise to the role of Acting Inspector General, both in safety and in law enforcement. The letter claiming he doesn’t have this experience is poorly researched," he added. "We would expect Mr. Elliott to recuse from OIG audits or investigations of PHMSA matters falling under Mr. Elliott’s responsibility."
  • In October, the DOT called the conflict of interest allegations about Chao a "politically motivated waste of time," The Hill notes.

The big picture: Behm was replaced on Saturday, a day after Trump moved to oust Steve Linick as State Department inspector general.

  • Trump has sought to remove four inspectors general over the past six weeks.

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