Apr 30, 2019

Report: Federal watchdog says HUD hindered Puerto Rico hurricane relief probe

People look on at a section of a road that collapsed in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria swept through the island in 2017. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been "unreasonably" slow with the release of emails and other records the agency's watchdog requested as part of a probe into the administration's management of disaster grants and hurricane relief funding for Puerto Rico, reports the Washington Post.

Details: HUD's inspector general Rae Oliver Davis reportedly complained to HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a memo on Monday that the delay undercuts his oversight assignment. In the memo shared with House and Senate Appropriations Committee staff, Davis wrote: "The OIG has put the department on ample notice that responses to our requests are untimely, that such delays negatively affect our work, and that the delays in OIG access fail to comply with the law."

  • HUD did not immediately respond to the Post's request for comment. But the Washington Post reports that White House lawyers are planning to assert executive privilege on oversight requests the president is involved in.
  • Agencies have also been reportedly directed to work with White House attorneys regarding oversight and document requests and were told that White House lawyers would be present for witness interviews.
  • A Trump administration official with knowledge of the IG's office request told the Post that the probe is "really broad" and that Davis is seeking records that are "pre-decisional and deliberative."
  • "The average wait time for HUD electronic records has increased from approximately 95 calendar days in 2017 to 151 calendar days in 2018, or more than 60 percent. ... 20 requests in 2018 took longer than six months, and in one instance, HUD took eight months to produce the emails of four employees," Davis wrote.

Context: President Trump's response in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria triggered concerns among Democrats after he refused to allocate additional funds to the U.S. territory and chose not to visit the island as quickly as he had when natural disasters struck Florida, Texas and other states that are important to him politically.

  • Last October, Trump falsely claimed in a tweet that Puerto Rico's "inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding to pay off other obligations."

At Congress' request, the IG is seeking to determine whether the White House interfered with the distribution of millions of dollars in disaster aid for Puerto Rico following 2017's Hurricane Maria. It is also conducting a broader review into HUD's management of disaster grants.

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