Longtime Pentagon Watchdog Stepping Down From Post

May 26, 2020
In The News

WASHINGTON — Glenn A. Fine, ousted by President Trump last month as head of a watchdog panel assigned to oversee how his administration spends trillions of taxpayer dollars in coronavirus pandemic relief, announced Monday he was resigning from his Pentagon job.

His departure came as Christi A. Grimm — the acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, whom Mr. Trump attacked after she released a report about shortages of hospital equipment in the pandemic — issued a strong defense of the system of independent watchdogs.

“We are impartial in what we do,” Ms. Grimm said in an appearance Tuesday before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, where lawmakers questioned her about the survey, which was published in April. “Really anything that is done that could impair independence I think compromises the effectiveness of oversight of programs that are there to serve the American public.”

Mr. Fine is a longtime leader among government watchdogs. He was the Justice Department’s inspector general for years, uncovering problems with F.B.I. surveillance and other issues after the Sept. 11 attacks, and since 2016 had led the Pentagon inspector general’s office.

On April 7, Mr. Trump demoted Mr. Fine from his role as the acting inspector general for the Defense Department. The move disqualified Mr. Fine, who has a reputation for aggressiveness and independence, from continuing to serve as the just-named leader of a committee of inspectors general that Congress created to coordinate oversight of the administration’s pandemic spending.

Mr. Trump replaced Mr. Fine as the acting Pentagon watchdog with Sean O’Donnell, the sitting inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency. The demotion meant Mr. Fine reverted to his permanent position as principal deputy inspector general, which rendered him ineligible to be a member of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Mr. Fine had just been named chairman of that panel a few days earlier by a broader organization of inspectors general from across the government.

The president nominated Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and a former federal investigator, as the Defense Department’s permanent inspector general. That nomination is pending.

At the time, Mr. Fine’s spokeswoman, Dwrena K. Allen, said he “remains focused and committed to the important mission” of the Office of Inspector General for the Defense Department.

But shorn of his leadership role, both at the Defense Department and in the new pandemic oversight panel, Mr. Fine now has opted to leave government. He had served as the acting inspector general at the Pentagon since 2016.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, praised Mr. Fine in a statement while blaming Mr. Trump’s treatment of him.

“There can be no doubt that this is a direct result of President Trump’s actions,” she said, adding, “It is a shame that our nation is losing such a dedicated public servant who has given so much to this country.”

Mr. Fine made no mention of Mr. Trump in an email to staff on Monday morning or a subsequent public statement.

In his message to his staff, Mr. Fine told them it had been “a privilege and an honor to serve with you for the past five years,” adding, “What you do every day is critical to our system of government.”

Mr. Fine praised the staff for a series of financial audits, criminal investigations and quarterly assessments of overseas operations in conflict zones including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. “You provide independent, nonpartisan oversight of important government operations,” Mr. Fine said in the email.

In a separate public statement, Mr. Fine, who formerly served as the Justice Department’s inspector general, cited the importance of the inspectors general throughout government, a group Mr. Trump has attacked as yet another form of resistance to his policies from the so-called deep state.

“The role of inspectors general is a strength of our system of government,” Mr. Fine said. “They provide independent oversight to help improve government operations in a transparent way. They are a vital component of our system of checks and balances, and I am grateful to have been part of that system.”

The president last month started a frontal assault on the ability of inspectors general to investigate his administration.

The dismantling began with a rapid flurry of firings and demotions, including the removal of the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department. Mr. Trump placed the State Department’s inspector general on immediate leave, notwithstanding a law that says he must give Congress his reasons 30 days before ousting such an official.

Mr. Trump has also declined to say why he was removing inspectors general beyond telling Congress that they no longer had his full confidence, leading to complaints by lawmakers, including Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, that the president is violating the requirement to provide an explanation.

And in a highly unusual step, Mr. Trump has also pushed ahead by replacing incumbents with political appointees who hold on to their old jobs, keeping them under the control of the cabinet secretaries they are supposed to be policing.

Later on Tuesday, Mr. Grassley released a five-page letter from Pat A. Cipollone, Mr. Trump’s White House counsel that claimed to respond to the senator’s concerns. It defended Mr. Trump’s legal power to take those actions.

In a statement, Mr. Grassley pronounced himself unsatisfied, saying the White House’s failure to give Congress a good reason for the firings raised the appearance that “political or self-interests are to blame.” He also noted that Mr. Cipollone did not address the “glaring conflict of interest” of installing political appointees from overseen agencies as acting inspectors general while they keep their appointments at the same time.

After attacking Ms. Grimm over her survey of equipment shortages, which featured interviews with administrators from 323 hospitals and health systems, Mr. Trump nominated a full-time replacement for her position. For now, she remains the top-ranking watchdog for Health and Human Services as that nomination works its way through the Senate.

In her video appearance before lawmakers Tuesday, Ms. Grimm, a career official who began working in the inspector general office in President Bill Clinton’s administration, was asked whether she and her colleagues can deliver harsh truths without fearing for their jobs.

“Independence is the cornerstone of what any office of inspector general does,” she said. “That allows us to be impartial in the work that we do and to go right down the middle in providing facts and letting those facts take us where they may. And it is a critically important element of any office of inspector general.”

She did not directly address a question about whether Mr. Trump’s recent actions had a “chilling” effect on inspectors general. But she said that she could not let “the idea of providing unpopular information drive decision-making in the work that we do.”

Among 14 coronavirus-related investigations, Ms. Grimm’s office has already begun reviews of the Food and Drug Administration’s role in approving coronavirus tests, the Strategic National Stockpile and Health and Human Services’ efforts to repatriate American citizens as the virus spread globally.

On Friday, it announced a new audit of how the health agency is doling out $50 billion in provider funds from a $2 trillion congressional relief package.

Ms. Grimm said on Tuesday that her office was also looking at “dozens” more coronavirus-related subjects.