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Trump’s pick for Pentagon watchdog prompts questions

Jason Abend has no experience running a large organization, unlike many previous Pentagon IGs, and no military background

Aerial view of the Pentagon.
Aerial view of the Pentagon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump moved swiftly this month to replace inspectors general across the government. Now Trump’s nominees for these watchdog jobs face questions about whether they will bark when needed, especially if Trump wants silence.

Arguably the most important IG organization in the country is the Pentagon’s, which comprises some 1,500 people in dozens of offices around the globe who do audits and criminal probes in search of waste, fraud or abuse in a nearly $700 billion annual enterprise.

Earlier this month, Trump pushed aside the Defense Department’s acting IG, Glenn Fine — the most experienced IG in history and one who was widely well-regarded — and moved him to the No. 2 Pentagon IG job.

To replace Fine in the top job and to oversee Fine, Trump nominated Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and a former federal investigator.

Abend has no experience running a large organization, unlike many previous Pentagon IGs, and no military background, according to his LinkedIn resume. What drew Trump’s team to him remains a mystery.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a group that closely watches IGs, said it would be preferable for Abend to work first as an IG at a smaller government department or agency before trying to run the Pentagon IG office. That, in fact, is what the last three Pentagon IGs did, and previous ones had other kinds of senior supervisory experience.

“Starting as IG at the Pentagon is like asking a weekend jogger to suddenly run in the Olympics,” Brian said.

Titanic job

No one can say for sure whether Abend would, if confirmed, ultimately succeed or fail at the job of Defense Department top cop. A resume offers clues about a person, but it does not necessarily predict future performance.

But if Abend becomes the Pentagon IG and succeeds at it, he will have defied the odds, a number of experts said. That’s not just because Abend will have overcome his limited experience, but also, they said, because any inspector general under Trump may face more than the usual difficulties in maintaining independence.

Gordon Heddell was the acting and confirmed Pentagon IG from 2008 through 2011. Former President George W. Bush named Heddell acting Pentagon IG, and President Barack Obama nominated him for the position.

Heddell said in an interview that “only an IG with impeccable character and steadfast resolve to do right could be counted on to operate independent of this president.”

“An IG nominated by Donald Trump is likely to find himself in the position of the boiler room engineer on the Titanic, who is being told by the captain to keep quiet about that pool of water coming in from the outside, while the captain’s on the bridge saying he’s got everything under control,” Heddell said.

Jon Rymer, Fine’s predecessor as Pentagon IG, said of Abend: “I have not seen a lot in his background that demonstrates senior leadership roles.” But Rymer said Abend, if confirmed, would inherit a highly competent staff.

Eleanor Hill, who was Pentagon IG during the Clinton administration, said she would not pass judgement on Abend’s qualifications but said any IG must understand, if not have experience in, investigations, audits and the law, and the person must appreciate the value of independence.

The Pentagon IG, in particular, oversees everything from healthcare programs to overseas military operations — “a very diverse portfolio,” Hill said.

Novices at the helm

The White House did not reply to a request for comment on this article. Abend did not reply to a message seeking comment.

Trump’s effective demotion of Fine had a cascading effect. Up to that point, Fine had been tapped by his fellow IGs to oversee not just Pentagon programs but also to run a special team focused on $2.3 trillion in coronavirus spending. By moving Fine out of his role as acting Pentagon IG, Trump made Fine ineligible to oversee the pandemic response.

Critics of Trump said Fine was sidelined because he was too independent.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested on April 16 that Fine may have been on the outs with Trump because Fine had asked tough questions.

In particular, according to a Pentagon IG report that day, the White House had stymied Fine’s efforts to obtain answers about presidential communications with Pentagon officials who were running a competition for a cloud computing contract between Amazon and Microsoft. Trump has frequently criticized Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, and The Washington Post.

Reed said in a statement that Trump “wants no independent oversight and is firing inspectors general left and right.”

While Abend’s nomination is pending and while Fine is forced to be the No. 2 IG at the Pentagon, the president named Sean O’Donnell, the Environmental Protection Agency IG, to simultaneously oversee that agency’s audits and investigations and the Defense Department’s.

O’Donnell, a former Justice Department prosecutor, is new not just to the Pentagon — where he, like Abend, has no experience. O’Donnell is also new to EPA, having only begun the latter job in January.

‘Wrecking ball’

The Trump administration announced Abend’s nomination April 3 as part of a major reshuffling of IGs — one that, some said, sent a chill through federal oversight offices.

Trump also announced that day his intent to nominate a slew of other new IGs, including one for the CIA and another for a $500 billion Treasury Department pandemic response fund.

The most attention-grabbing decision of that day was Trump’s firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community IG, who had transmitted to Congress last fall the whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment.

On April 7, Trump again manifested his distaste for independent IG assessments when he assailed Christi Grimm, who leads the Health and Human Services IG office, after that organization issued an audit documenting shortfalls in hospital equipment for combating the novel coronavirus. Trump called the report “fake” and implied a partisan motive on Grimm’s part.

To critics, these moves sent a message that IGs should be friendly to Trump, even though they are traditionally nonpartisan and independent.

Brian of the Project on Government Oversight said Trump’s actions and words hit like a “wrecking ball” in federal IG offices.

In the context of Trump’s government-wide IG house cleaning this month, Abend’s appointment was largely unnoticed.

But given the president’s insistence on loyalty, some who track the Pentagon have worried aloud that Abend must have been chosen to replace the highly qualified Fine primarily because Abend would be loyal to Trump.

“You have to ask yourself right out of the box: Why would you want to select anyone other than Glenn Fine?” Heddell said. “Objectively, it doesn’t make any sense.”

“You have to ask yourself: Why did the president select this person?” Heddell said of Abend. “Because certainly there’s not enough given in his background to explain why. He’s got law enforcement experience, but it doesn’t go deep enough.”

Qualifications and qualities

Abend began his career in 1996 as an FBI researcher before becoming a Secret Service special agent for four years, according to his LinkedIn resume.

He left the government in 2001 for 17 years. First, he founded and ran Public Safety Media Group, a professional services company that advised public safety, military and intelligence organizations. Then, Abend worked as executive director of a group called the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association.

He returned to government at essentially the same level he had left it, working as a special agent for seven more years — this time for the Department of Housing and Urban Development IG and then for the Federal Housing Finance Agency IG — before being hired at the Customs and Border Protection office.

Ken Donohue, the HUD IG when Abend was an agent there, and Donohue’s deputy in that period, Michael Stephens, both said Abend was a capable agent.

“I think he’s very well qualified to be DoD IG,” said Donohue.

But another person who used to work with Abend and who asked not to be named said Abend clashed with his colleagues and was not a particularly impressive agent.

The Inspector General Act of 1978, as amended, says a Pentagon IG must have qualifications in any of several fields: “accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations.”

Abend meets the strict criterion of having been an investigator, but his professional record is not as full of senior roles as those of most other people who became Pentagon IGs.

To be sure, a few IGs had resumes that, like Abend’s, were not as noteworthy as others. In fact, one or two had little background in the ways of the military, according to John Crane, a former assistant Pentagon inspector general who served for nearly three decades in the organization under 11 acting or confirmed IGs.

To Crane, the “acid test” for any IG is about “character rather than skill sets.”

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