Three leading House Democrats demanded Tuesday that the Trump administration reinstate Mitch Behm as the Transportation Department’s acting inspector general after the president removed Behm from the role — the latest in a string of Trump firings of government watchdogs.
In separate letters addressed to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Howard Elliott, the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration who was tapped by Trump to replace Behm, House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), who leads an Oversight subcommittee, vowed to investigate the circumstances around Behm’s ouster.
“Mr. Behm’s removal is the latest in a series of politically motivated firings of Inspectors General by President Trump,” the lawmakers wrote. “This assault on the integrity and independence of Inspectors General appears to be an intentional campaign to undermine their ability to expose corruption and protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Behm, who took up the mantle of acting inspector general in January, was removed from his post on Friday — the same day that Trump fired Steve Linick as the State Department’s watchdog.
In their letters, the Democrats questioned whether Behm’s removal was linked in any way to his current investigations, including a probe into whether Chao — who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — had given preferential treatment to Kentucky.
The lawmakers said they were “concerned” that Behm’s ouster could be “an effort to undermine the progress” of the investigation into Chao, “which we understand is ongoing.”
“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,” they wrote in their letter to the Transportation secretary.
In a statement to The Hill, the Transportation Department lambasted the Democrats’ letter as “not factual” since Behm, who was also the deputy inspector general, “was never designated the Acting IG.”
As The Hill noted, however, Behm continues to be listed as both the department’s deputy general and acting inspector general on the website of the Office of Inspector General’s website.
A spokesman for Chao told AP that “Behm was not fired and continues to serve as deputy inspector general.” He added that Elliott was a good fit for the watchdog role.
“Mr. Elliott will bring decades of valuable expertise to the role of acting inspector general, both in safety and in law enforcement,″ the spokesman said.
But the three House Democrats disagreed.
“Mr. Elliott lacks the independence, qualifications, and experience necessary to be an effective Inspector General,” Maloney, DeFazio and Connolly wrote. “Prior to becoming PHMSA Administrator, Mr. Elliott spent his entire career as an executive in the freight rail industry. Mr. Elliott appears to have no investigatory or law enforcement experience, which leaves him unprepared to oversee the DOT Office of Inspector General.”
Other than Behm and Linick, President Trump has fired multiple inspectors general in recent months, including intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson and Christi Grimm, inspector general of Health and Human Services.