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DHS watchdog appointed by Trump has fueled an exodus of agency lawyers, sources say

The investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has highlighted concerns about the Inspector General Office at the Department of Homeland Security.
Alistair Pike
AFP via Getty Images
The investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has highlighted concerns about the Inspector General Office at the Department of Homeland Security.

The leader of the Department of Homeland Security's watchdog agency took office more than three years ago and since then the majority of lawyers in the Office of Counsel have left, according to multiple sources and internal documents reviewed by NPR.

More than 30 lawyers have left during that time, the sources and records show. That's left career staff assigned to the watchdog's Office of Counsel to contend with a revolving door that has hindered oversight of DHS, the government's third largest Cabinet department.

The pattern has hurt the attorneys' abilities to establish and maintain relationships throughout DHS and their own agency, a key element to oversight work, several sources said.

"You lose the institutional knowledge and expertise," one of these sources said.

The departures often stemmed from the lawyers' unease with how Joseph Cuffari managed the watchdog role. Seven sources with knowledge of the inner workings of the agency who spoke with NPR said the inspector general has fueled organizational dysfunction and abused his power.

NPR agreed to withhold their names because they fear professional retaliation.

Cuffari and his top leaders showed deference to DHS and its components, according to the sources who spoke anonymously with NPR. DHS has an annual budget of tens of billions of dollars and includes agencies such as the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The inspector general is supposed to make sure that the tax dollars are spent as Congress intended.

But watchdog leaders and DHS "were overly cozy," one source said.

In response, the public affairs office for the watchdog agency said it was limited in its ability to address the allegations due to several ongoing investigations. However, it touted agency leaders' relationship with workers, saying they give the department good grades on surveys, and Cuffari has offered to meet with small groups to receive employee feedback.

"As he promised during his confirmation process and hearing, Dr. Cuffari has transformed DHS OIG to a model workplace," the agency's public affairs unit said in an emailed statement.

Employees who were critical feared retaliation

Career staffers who have tried to raise concerns can pay the price, six sources said.

Cuffari, along with his closest advisors, have run the agency with threats of retaliation, these sources said. They feared if they spoke publicly, they could be targeted, too.

The office isn't run like "a government agency trying to do the best for taxpayer dollars," one source said. "It's grudge matches and fiefdoms."

Some workers also faced resistance when they tried to leave for another federal job, sources said.

In one case, an employee's release to a new job was held in limbo as top leaders tried to get the worker to agree to several extraordinary stipulations. That included signing a non-disclosure agreement tied to the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, two sources said.

The worker, who had hired an attorney, ultimately did not sign the NDA, they said.

Two sources told NPR they were worried agency leaders have attempted to use NDAs to shield their work from public scrutiny.

Anonymous staffers have complained to the president

Last month, an anonymous worker letter addressed to President Biden asked him to oust Cuffari, who was appointed to the role by former President Donald Trump. The workers said they represented a broad swath of the 700-plus employee watchdog agency, which includes the offices of audits, investigations, inspections and counsel.

"You are the only one who can help us," read the September letter, which was obtained by the independent Project on Government Oversight group.

"We need help. We can no longer be silent when faced with continuous mismanagement of DHS OIG at its highest levels," the letter states. Among other complaints, it says Cuffari "refuses to move forward with important proposed work without reason."

In 2018, Trump appointed Cuffari, a former Air Force officer who worked as a political advisor to two Republican Arizona governors and previously at the Justice Department's watchdog agency. The Senate confirmed Cuffari in 2019, and he took over the position that summer.

By December 2019, Congress began to receive complaints from career staffers and it marked one of the reasons Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to assess the agency's management.

"Employees have alleged that failure to develop, implement, and adhere to management policies has resulted in decisions that are arbitrary, show favoritism or bias, hurt morale, and negatively affect operations," House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said at an April 2021 hearing.

Stymied investigations

The latest complaints follow a series of questions about Cuffari's leadership.

In April 2021, the head of the Office of Counsel's Whistleblower Protection Unit, Brian Volsky, filed a complaint with an independent federal watchdog group, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or CIGIE.

The complaint alleged Cuffari and two of his top officials, Counsel to the Inspector General James Read and Chief of Staff Kristen Fredricks, were guilty of "gross mismanagement" and had jeopardized the agency's independence.

Specifically, the complaint, first shared by POGO, alleged leaders slow-walked a probe into a report of retaliation against a DHS whistleblower.

Volsky, who is no longer with the agency, acknowledged to NPR he filed the complaint, but declined to comment further.

The case, however, illustrated a larger concern that Cuffari and other top leaders lacked independence from DHS, the sources said.

"If inspector general independence is all you have, and you are not independent, then how can you trust the work?" one said.

Another source added of the Inspector General's Office leadership, "I think they forget they're stewards of the taxpayer. ... There's folks in the IG community that strongly believe in the mission and purpose. And to see them to run the agency the way they do is just disheartening."

A 2021 GAO report also said the agency needed to address management weaknesses after a series of leadership changes at the Inspector General office some of which predate Cuffari's time.

The GAO noted extended time frames for inspector general reports being released in recent years. Sources allege to NPR that in part this is a result of Cuffari's restrained approach to oversight of DHS.

Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top leaders raised concerns that Cuffari downplayed widespread reports of sexual harassment and misconduct at DHS. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said it appeared Cuffari was making questionable edits and delaying a release of a related report.

The following month, Cuffari issued a scathing response, shifting the blame onto lower-level employees in his agency. That May 2022 memo was also addressed in the anonymous worker letter.

"You have an Inspector General of a 700-person organization with multiple deputies. ... And it's just like, why are you blaming this person who is like three levels below you?" one source asked. "I think that was a real turning point for a lot of the career staff."

A critical role at a critical time

This summer, congressional probes into the Jan. 6 attack spotlighted Cuffari, triggering new questions on his agency tenure. Now, the chairs of several congressional committees are considering next steps.

"It is clear that Inspector General Cuffari's actions have not only jeopardized the integrity of his office, but have hurt the ability of the professionals in his office to perform at their highest level," said House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

In July, Cuffari notified Congress about an alarming discovery: the U.S. Secret Service had deleted text messages during to the time frame surrounding the Jan. 6 attack as part of a "device-replacement program."

The disclosures came about two weeks after former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson delivered explosive testimony in a public Jan. 6 hearing, which included claims involving the Secret Service.

However, Cuffari's July 13 letter to the chairs of the Senate and House Homeland Security panels left out that his agency knew cell phones at the Secret Service had undergone new updates more than a year earlier.

It was a reminder of how Cuffari has fumbled previous disclosures, such as the May 2022 memo targeting his staff, one source said.

"That's an example of how they're tactical and not strategic," they said.

For months, Cuffari and his top leaders had stalled and resisted efforts from his career staff to obtain Secret Service materials, the sources said.

For example, two sources said watchdog leaders were talking directly with DHS officials about the Secret Service materials without members of the investigative team involved. They also allowed DHS to edit the inspector general's requests, they said.

"There were a lot of side conversations without anybody on the (investigative) team," the source said. "Why are they allowing (DHS) to edit what the (Inspector General's office) was requesting?"

Two sources said career staffers proposed a series of tools to try to obtain the texts, including issuing in October 2021 a so-called "management alert," a public report documenting the missing materials. Leaders batted down the suggestion, they said.

Soon after his omissions came to light, Cuffari launched a criminal probe into the lost texts, largely ending cooperation by his agency with the congressional inquiries.

"We are concerned that you are now improperly using a criminal investigation that you only recently announced to hide evidence from Congress of your misconduct and mismanagement," wrote Maloney, the House Oversight Committee Chair, and Thompson, the Homeland Security Committee Chair who now also chairs the House Select Jan. 6 panel.

In a July 23letter, Maloney and Thompson told Cuffari he should step away from the probe, arguing he had violated the Inspector General Act of 1978 requiring he "immediately" notify Congress of serious problems.

"I think we have to step back and look at how did we get to this point. And I think once we look at that, it appears that the IG is potentially at issue with the conduct of his investigation," Thompson told NPR after the letter was issued.

Durbin, the Senate majority whip, had called for Attorney General Merrick Garland to take over Cuffari's probe of the missing records.

"This man has lost whatever credibility he may have once had on this matter," Durbin said from the Senate floor.

A congressional source familiar with the discussions said DOJ confirmed it received Durbin's request, but consistent with the department's typical practice, has declined to share details about how it is addressing the messages. The source added it remains clear to Durbin that Cuffari "shouldn't have any role" in the probe.

A cry for help

Several sources who spoke with NPR said the anonymous worker letter to Biden marks a last ditch effort from a desperate workforce.

"This cry for help is not new — it just went unheard for a long time," one said.

Many of the sources are disturbed that the review of the complaint originally filed against Cuffari and two top officials by the independent panel of watchdogs, CIGIE, has appeared to have stalled out after more than a year. CIGIE has not yet responded to an NPR request for an update on the probe.

The letter marks a shift from a hopeful outlook some career staffers had after Biden took office.

Now, sources say there are increasing worries that nearly two years into his presidency, Biden won't step in. As a candidate and then as president, Biden repeatedly slammed Trump's firing of inspectors general, and Biden used "the watchdogs are back" as a common refrain.

Last month, the Biden White House said there were no personnel updates to share on the heels of the anonymous workers' letter expressing their concerns.

"We're going to take a look at them," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during a Sept. 26 briefing.

The White House did not respond to NPR's requests for an update on the review.

However, pressure on Biden continues to grow.

Maloney and Thompson and other members have raised worries that Cuffari's performance issues go back years.

In 2020, they raised concerns of his "alarmingly slow pace" of issuing investigative reports, and shortcomings in probing the deaths of migrants in the custody of Customs and Border Protection. Members also expressed alarm over the lack of probes into DHS law enforcement failures surrounding the 2020 racial justice protests and the U.S.-Mexico border.

They also released a 2013 memo tied to an internal probe into Cuffari's previous work as a special agent for the Justice Department's Inspector General Office. The memo said Cuffari violated agency requirements and federal ethics regulations, using his public office to benefit his personal associates.

Cuffari retired soon after the Justice Department completed its probe.

The infractions cited in the memo and in other cases highlight the urgency felt by workers at the DHS Office of Inspector General, sources told NPR.

"Is it total negligence or is it actually mismanagement or abuse of authority?" one source asked. "When you add up all these different episodes now, I think people are at, 'It's abuse of authority.' "

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 18, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story said DHS is the third largest federal agency. It is the third largest Cabinet department.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.