May 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Democrats warn Transportation Department on watchdog's removal

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.

Go deeper: Trump's new purge

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President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their families on the final night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 21, 2016. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The Republican National Committee is scrambling for a new convention host city after President Trump said North Carolina’s coronavirus restrictions will make Charlotte unworkable for the crowds he’s counting on.

Driving the news: The organization is still hoping to conduct the convention's "official business" in Charlotte, an RNC spokesperson said. But the part that most Americans think about the convention — the spectacle of the speakers and the president accepting the Republican nomination itself — will be held in a different state with more relaxed COVID-19 laws.

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Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators outside of the White House on Monday. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

Protests over the death of George Floyd and other police-related killings of black people continued Tuesday across the U.S. for the eighth consecutive day, prompting a federal response from the National Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

The latest: Protesters were still out en masse even as curfews set in in New York City and Washington, D.C.. Large crowds took a knee at Arizona's state capitol nearly an hour before the statewide 8 p.m. curfew, and a peaceful march dispersed in Chicago ahead of the city's 9 p.m. curfew.

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Election official at a polling place at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the midst of a global pandemic and national protests over the death of George Floyd, eight states and the District of Columbia held primary elections on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, needs to win 425 of the 479 delegates up for grabs in order to officially clinch the nomination. There are a number of key down-ballot races throughout the country as well, including a primary in Iowa that could determine the fate of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).