President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Washington. From left, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Trump, and Small Business Administration administrator Linda McMahon. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Interior Dept. contradicts Ben Carson on new watchdog hiring

October 18, 2018 - 6:11 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Contradicting a claim by a Cabinet secretary, the Interior Department said Thursday that a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development will not be reassigned to lead an internal watchdog agency at Interior.

Spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement that an email sent by HUD Secretary Ben Carson last week "had false information in it."

Carson had said in the Oct. 12 email that assistant HUD secretary Suzanne Israel Tufts would take over as acting inspector general at Interior. Tufts would have replaced Mary Kendall, who's been acting inspector general since 2009.

The White House referred Tufts to Interior "as a potential candidate" for a job in the inspector general's office, Swift said, but "at the end of the day, she was not offered a job at Interior."

It is unusual for a political appointee to be assigned to another agency, especially an inspector general's office. Kendall's oversees about 265 employees, including 80 investigators. They conduct a wide range of inquiries at Interior, which oversees more than 245 million acres (380,000 square miles) of public lands, including 417 units in the national park system.

Meanwhile, the inspector general's office says in a new report that Interior spent more than $25,000 providing security for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife when they took an August 2017 vacation to Turkey and Greece.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press, said the decision to provide protection was made by a supervisor at the U.S. Park Police after Zinke approached her and asked whether she felt it would be safe for him to travel through Istanbul. The supervisor determined a protective detail was warranted because of an airport bombing in 2016 and a general terrorist threat in the city.

Zinke told investigators he did not ask for the security detail. "They're paid to do the threat assessment," Zinke said of the park police staff. "I tend not to tell them what to do. "

The report also said that despite an Interior Department policy that prohibits nongovernment officials from riding in government vehicles, Zinke's wife, Lolita, was allowed to ride in government vehicles with him. Investigators noted that the Zinkes reimbursed the agency for costs associated with her travel in department vehicles when it was required, and that the secretary cannot use personal vehicles because of his security detail.

The decision allowing Lolita Zinke to ride in government vehicles was made by agency lawyers.

The uncertainty over the leadership over the inspector general's office comes as Zinke is under investigation on other fronts, including his involvement in a Montana land deal with the head of an energy services company that does business with the department. Zinke, a Republican, is a former Montana congressman.

Democrats had seized on the apparent transfer of Tufts, calling her unqualified and her appointment unprecedented. In a letter Thursday, before Interior announced the transfer would not go through, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee blasted the move.

"The mere threat of replacing an IG when the head of the agency it oversees is under heavy scrutiny will send a signal to current and future IGs throughout the federal government that releasing unfavorable findings may threaten their job," Democrats wrote.

The possible transfer "creates a permanent disincentive for the candor required for an effective IG and severs the independence that is the foundation of effective oversight over federal government waste, fraud and abuse," they said. The letter is signed by four Democrats on the Resources panel, including Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the committee's top Democrat.

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