A Trump political appointee previously working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will soon take over as the head inspector general (IG) overseeing investigations at the Interior Department, according to an internal email obtained by The Hill.
Suzanne Israel Tufts will take over as acting inspector general for the Interior Department, according to an email sent from HUD Secretary Ben Carson to staff last Friday.
“It is with mixed emotions that I announce that Suzanne Israel Tufts, our Assistant Secretary for Administration, has decided to leave HUD to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior,” Carson wrote in his email with the subject line “Fond Farewell.”
“Suzanne is an extremely enthusiastic and energetic leader who re-established HUD’s Office of Administration, implementing improvements to the agency’s governance and internal controls. During her time with us, Suzanne also commenced the most focused and strategic collective bargaining process in the Agency’s history.”
Tufts was confirmed by the Senate last December to serve as an assistant HUD secretary. In the role, she reportedly also took over the job of chief administrative officer — a role previously held by career HUD employee Helen Foster. Foster told outlets in February that she was demoted from the role when she refused to sign off on Carson’s extravagant office redecorations after noting the congressional limit was $5,000. Carson in March faced criticism over reports that he ordered a $31,000 dining set, which he later canceled.
The move is notable as Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke faces a number of inspector general investigations, including a contentious business deal he made with a Halliburton chairman. Past probes included a speech he gave to the Las Vegas Golden Knights professional hockey team and the questionable use of charter planes.
The inspector general makes the final determination whether to open up an IG investigation and has the power to end ongoing investigations.
HUD spokesman Jereon Brown confirmed the move to The Hill Tuesday. He said Tufts is being detailed to the IG’s office, which he said is a temporary move and that Tufts will remain a HUD employee. Brown said the move “happens” all the time.
An IG official with knowledge told The Hill it’s very uncommon for a political appointee to be detailed to another agency, especially an inspector general’s office.
An Interior spokeswoman, however, noted that the move would be much more permanent.
“The position of the Inspector General has been vacant for about ten years. This is a presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed position, which would be announced by the White House,” Interior spokesperson Faith Vander Voort told the Hill.
Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Tufts would not need Senate confirmation for the new role since she was previously confirmed at her HUD position.
Before her time in government, Tufts worked as a consultant for tax-exempt organizations and emerging companies. She is a lawyer who previously served as a member Republican National Lawyers Association. In that role she served as a liaison for the Trump presidential campaign helping out on Election Day in Philadelphia as a “deployment leader,” according to a copy of her resume obtained by government watchdog American Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request.
Tufts will replace Mary Kendall, who has served as acting inspector general at the Interior Department since 2009 and was previously the deputy inspector general since 1999. Then-President Obama moved to confirm Kendall as the full-time IG officer in 2015, but dropped the effort following GOP criticism of her impartiality.
A spokesperson for Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said the news of the change had not been communicated to the office or Kendall.
“The OIG has received no official communication or information about any leadership changes,” a spokesperson told The Hill.
Former Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich called the news “a very big deal.”
“This is a very big deal. Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any Congressional oversight. Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency’s head should raise alarm bells everywhere,” Bromwich tweeted Tuesday.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ranking member on the House committee that oversees the Interior Department, said the swift position change “stinks to high heaven.”
“Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG. After looking around, the best person they could find is a Trump political operative at HUD who turned a blind eye to Secretary Carson’s $31,000 dining set,” Grijalva said in a statement to The Hill.
“President Trump keeps warning people that if Democrats get control of Congress, all you’ll see is investigations and subpoenas. Well, somebody’s got to do it.”
Chris Saeger, executive director at government watchdog Western Values Project said the move “reeks of retaliation.”
“This reeks of retaliation for the shocking number of investigations into Secretary Zinke’s unethical conduct,” Saeger said.
“He should immediately explain the reasons why the current Inspector General is leaving and if he fails to, Congress should demand answers.”