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House Democrats’ Focus on Ouster of One Inspector General Could Impact Mitch McConnell’s Reelection Campaign

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11: Elaine Chao testifies during her confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. secretary of transportation before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee as her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (2nd L) looks on, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. Chao, who has previously served as secretary of the Labor Department, was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump.

The latest salvo in President Donald Trump’s continuing purge of the federal government’s inspectors general (IG) could have unintended consequences for one of the most powerful members of the Republican party and a key presidential ally. House Democrats this week said they plan to open an investigation into whether the ouster of acting Department of Transportation (DOT) IG Mitch Behm on Tuesday was politically motivated. At the time of his termination, Behm was investigating whether the Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao gave preferential treatment to her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), and his home state of Kentucky.

The Democratic chairs of the House Committees on Oversight and Transportation penned letters to Chao and newly installed acting DOT IG Howard “Skip” Elliot on Tuesday, stating their opposition to Behm’s removal and calling for his immediate reinstatement. According to Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Carolyn Maloney of New York; and Gerald Connolly of Virginia, the move appeared to be a motivated by a desire to end to the investigations into Chao.

“We are concerned that Mr. Behm’s removal could be an effort to undermine the progress of this investigation, which we understand is ongoing,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to Chao. “Any attempt by you or your office to interfere with the Office of Inspector General’s investigation of yourself is illegal and will be thoroughly examined by our Committees.”

The Democrats specifically noted that McConnell is seeking reelection this year.

The most pressing case being investigated by Behm’s office stemmed from allegations that Chao used her position leading the DOT to steer lucrative grants and favored projects to her husband’s state. According to a Politico report, Chao even designated a “special liaison” in her office who was tasked with assisting Kentucky’s state and local officials and gave “special advantage to projects favored by her husband.”

The Democratic lawmakers demanded that the Trump administration with any information and documents pertaining to the IG office’s current investigations that might have influenced the decision to remove Behm, including a review of Chao’s conduct.

They lawmakers claim that they need Chao to hand over any documents because they are considering legislative reforms. The documents they seek relate both to the circumstances of Behm’s ouster and the evaluation of Elliot’s qualifications to replace him:

Our Committees are considering legislative reforms in response to the President’s removal of Mr. Behm, appointment of Mr. Elliott, and broad attacks on Inspectors General across government. In furtherance of these legislative efforts and our oversight of DOT, we request that you produce to the Committees all documents and communications related to the following topics by June 1, 2020, including communications with the White House or within DOT:

1. The change in status including removal, demotion, or replacement of Mr. Behm in his role as Acting IG; and
2. Any evaluation of the qualifications, experience, or suitability of Mr. Elliott to perform the duties of DOT Inspector General.

Behm was the second inspector general President Trump sought to remove in the last week. Trump said in letter last Friday that he no longer had confidence in Steve Linick to serve as State Department inspector general. The decision was made at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was under investigation. It’s unclear to what extent or how far along Linick in various probes. Questions have been raised about whether Pompeo improperly spent taxpayer funds on lavish dinner parties, whether the Trump administration unlawfully circumvented Congress to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and whether Pompeo made a state department staffer to run personal errands for him and his wife.

Both Chao and Pompeo have denied that the IGs were terminated for political reasons.

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.