Interior Dept. contradicts Carson’s inspector general news

A political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development will not become the top watchdog at the Interior Department, an Interior spokeswoman said Thursday.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said the announcement less than a week ago by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, in which he said that HUD Assistant Secretary Suzanne Israel Tufts was going to become the new acting IG at Interior “had false information in it.”

Swift did not say whether the announcement was false at the time it was made, or whether the administration’s plans had changed after the move was criticized. The news of a possible new IG at Interior came as the office has four open investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“Ms. Tufts is not employed by the Department and no decision was ever made to move her to Interior,” Swift said in her statement. “HUD sent out an email that had false information in it.”

Carson had bid “a fond farewell” to Tufts in a department-wide email last week, and said she “has decided to leave HUD to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior.”

HUD and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Interior’s inspector general’s office had no information beyond the department statement, and has not been contacted by the White House regarding who will lead the office.

Swift said that Tufts was a potential candidate for a post in the IG’s office.

“Ms. Tufts was referred to the Department by the White House as a potential candidate for a position in the Inspector General’s office. At the end of the day, she was not offered a job at Interior,” Swift said.

Swift’s statement said that Mary Kendall, who has led the office since 2009, “is still the Deputy Inspector General at the Department of the Interior.” The inspector general post has officially been vacant since 2011.

The appointment of a political official as the acting inspector general was seen within the government watchdog community as highly unusual. Inspectors general take pride in their independence from political influence, and while they are nominated by the White House, they are first vetted by a non-partisan inspector general group and are not political figures and do not step down when the administration changes.

Some Democrats pointed out that the Interior inspector general’s office is currently investigating Zinke, including a second review of his travel and a possible land deal with energy giant Halliburton involving a brewery in Zinke’s Montana hometown.

“If the Interior Department’s explanation is that Secretary Carson doesn’t know what his own staff are doing, they should explain whether Ms. Tufts is needed at HUD or not,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.