WASHINGTON – Top congressional Democrats opened an inquiry Saturday into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's ouster of a government watchdog and accused Pompeo of trying to shield himself from an internal investigation.
In a joint letter, Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the White House and the State Department to "preserve all records related to the firing" of Inspector General Steve Linick.
“President Trump’s unprecedented removal of Inspector General Linick is only his latest sacking of an inspector general, our government’s key independent watchdogs, from a federal agency," the two lawmakers said Saturday in a series of letters demanding documents related to Linick's firing.
"Reports indicate that Secretary Pompeo personally made the recommendation to fire Mr. Linick," Engel and Menendez said, "and it is our understanding that he did so because the Inspector General had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself."
A senior State Department official said Pompeo’s move to fire the agency’s top watchdog “blindsided everybody” and smacks of “political retaliation.”
The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, confirmed the inspector general, Linick, was investigating Pompeo’s use of State Department staff to run personal errands for himself and his wife.
“If Secretary Pompeo is involved in firing his IG – who is heading up that investigation – then that is definitely retaliatory,” the person said. “Someone obviously has something to hide that they don't want the IG to find out about.”
The State Department press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations that Linick's ouster was a move to shield Pompeo from an internal inquiry and an act of political retaliation.
On Friday, the State Department said an ally of Vice President Mike Pence would take over Linick's role at the helm of the IG's office.
The White House is required to give Congress 30 days notice before removing an inspector general, which President Donald Trump did Friday in a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at about 8:30 p.m.
"It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General," Trump wrote.
A State Department official declined to say why Linick was fired.
But Democrats said it was part of a broader pattern of purges the White House has undertaken to remove government watchdogs charged with ferreting out malfeasance and corruption.
“The President’s late-night, weekend firing of the State Department Inspector General has accelerated his dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people," Pelosi said in a statement Friday night.
Linick was fired "for honorably performing his duty," she added.
The senior State Department official said that based on his interactions with Linick, the IG is a by-the-book investigator with no political agenda.
"The guy has never picked sides politically. He's just a straight shooter when it comes to doing his job for the taxpayer," the person said.
He said Pompeo knew about the IG's investigation into his use of State Department staff for personal purposes because some of his top aides had turned over documents to the IG's office as part of the inquiry.
CNN reported last year that House Democrats were looking into allegations from a State Department whistleblower who said Pompeo was using his taxpayer-funded security staff to run errands, such as picking up the family dog from a groomer and fetching carryout food.
The State Department official noted that Linick was also involved in the Ukraine controversy, albeit tangentially. After Democrats opened their investigation into Trump's dealings with Ukraine's president, Linick made a high-profile trip to Capitol Hill to brief congressional aides on a dossier the State Department had received related to Ukraine.
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The packet contained debunked allegations and political smears targeting former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who Trump ousted after his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, complained about her. Giuliani later admitted that he was the source of the dossier.
"If you look at the recent firings, most of them have to do with those who were involved with Ukraine and Giuliani," the State Department official said. "There’s still things going on with respect to some of that."
After the Senate voted to acquit Trump on the House impeachment charges, Trump fired or reassigned a number of individuals who had cooperated with the congressional investigation – including his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert who worked on the National Security Council.
Last month, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who informed congressional leaders about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.
And earlier this month, Trump removed Glenn Fine as acting inspector general at the Defense Department, a move that stripped Fine of his post as chairman of a special committee charged with overseeing the roughly $2 trillion stimulus law to mitigate economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ethics experts have blasted Trump's spate of firings, particularly of government watchdogs charged with ensuring taxpayer funds are not misused.
"The assault on the IG's is late-stage corruption," Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, tweeted Friday night after the news of Linick.
"Trump's kicking down one of the last bulwarks that stand between us and the burgeoning corruption-driven authoritarianism," said Shaub, who resigned after clashing with Trump over the president's refusal to divest from his business holdings, among other issues.
The senior State Department official expressed concern that the Trump administration was working to eviscerate all government oversight.
"If this kind of thing keeps on going and Congress allows it to continue in this manner, there will be nobody that will be able to hold anybody accountable for wrongdoing in federal agencies," he said. "The IGs will have no leverage."
Engel and Menedez called on the Trump administration to turn over all documents related to the "termination, removal, or replacement of Inspector General Linick" by May 22. They also asked for “any and all” records of pending IG investigations as of May 15, including emails, text messages and other documents.
The State Department announced Friday that Stephen J. Akard, a one-time aide to then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, would replace Linick as the agency's inspector general.
Akard has served in other State Department roles, including as a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Brussels. He worked as an economic adviser for Pence, when the now-vice president was Indiana's chief executive.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pompeo's firing of inspector general Steve Linick sparks investigation