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Emails show surprise at upheaval in Transportation inspector general’s office

Emails released by ethics group reveal shock at Trump's reassignment of acting inspector general. 'They really only trust their own bench'

The Transportation Department, led by Secretary Elaine Chao, has pushed back on House Democratic assertions that the department's acting inspector general was wrongly removed.
The Transportation Department, led by Secretary Elaine Chao, has pushed back on House Democratic assertions that the department's acting inspector general was wrongly removed. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The decision to replace the acting inspector general of the Department of Transportation with a political appointee who already headed another agency at the department was met with shock, according to newly released emails obtained by an ethics investigative organization.

“Wow,” wrote one outside associate to then acting Inspector General Mitch Behm, who appeared to have been surprised to read a White House announcement that he’d be returning to his previous role as deputy inspector general. “They really only trust their own bench.” 

“Interesting times,” wrote a colleague of Behm’s.

The emails, requested by the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington under the Freedom of Information Act, show that even Behm was stunned when he was abruptly returned to his prior role as deputy inspector general. 

“Wild,” he emailed an unnamed outside associate at 10:17 p.m. the night the White House announced that Howard “Skip” Elliott, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, would serve as acting inspector general instead of Behm. 

[Democrats raise ruckus over demoted Transportation watchdog]

Elliott, a former railroad executive, will also maintain his responsibilities at PHMSA, but has announced he will recuse himself from any inspector general reviews of PHMSA.

In a statement released by the DOT, the agency dismissed the surprise expressed in the emails as  “a normal reaction from the organization’s staff who’ve had the same leadership for more than dozen years. “

“Mr. Behm was not removed or fired,” the agency said in the statement released Wednesday night. ” He continues to serve in his long-time role as Deputy Inspector General. Behm only assumed the duties of IG in the absence of any designated or nominated IG, which occurred May 15. Only the president can designate or nominate an IG. Behm was the most senior career staffer in the office only after a medical vacancy by the previous IG.”

Publicly, Behm, a 17-year veteran of the Office of Inspector General, kept any surprise to himself. The day after President Donald Trump’s announcement, Behm emailed OIG staff to tell them he would “be meeting with Mr. Elliott Monday morning to begin working through the details of how this transition will work.” 

Behm’s colleagues offered gracious words. Chuck Ward, assistant inspector general for audit operations and special reviews, told Behm that Elliott “will be taking command of a highly effective and highly efficient organization as a result of your proactive and engaged leadership as Deputy and Acting IG over the past 4+ years.”

“Ending on a personal note, you would have been a crackerjack permanent DOT IG if you had been nominated,” he wrote. 

The upheaval provoked sharp criticism from House Democrats, who signaled that they believed Behm’s sudden removal from the acting role was one of a “series of politically motivated firings of Inspectors General” by the president. The DOT, in turn, said Behm had never been formally designated as acting inspector general but instead assumed those responsibilities when his predecessor retired. 

‘Errors of facts’

In a May 21 letter to House Democrats, Steven G. Bradbury, general counsel for DOT, took umbrage at the Democrats’ criticism, saying it “contains numerous errors of facts and law.”

Upheaval at the DOT IG office came on the same day as the announcement that Department of State Inspector General Steve Linick would be ousted. It was also the same day that Trump nominated a permanent inspector general, Eric Soskin. That nomination awaits Senate approval.

Democrats also questioned whether Behm’s removal was spurred by a DOT IG investigation of allegations that Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, gave special treatment to McConnell’s constituents, steering millions of dollars to Kentucky in order to help his political prospects.

But Behm, in a June 2 letter to House Democrats including House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., insisted Elliott had not intervened in any investigations since he was named acting inspector general.

“I can attest to the fact that since becoming Acting Inspector General, Mr. Elliott has not directed or requested the modification of any audit or investigation,” he wrote.

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