House lawmakers re-up probe into DHS IG’s $1 million retaliation settlement

House Democrats are reigniting an investigation into Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari’s use of taxpayer dollars to settle claims of retaliation by his former top deputy.

And lawmakers are also probing whether the Social Security Administration’s inspector general inappropriately referred Cuffari to her former law firm in connection with the retaliation investigation. A spokeswoman for the SSA IG called the assertions “blatantly inaccurate.”

In a letter sent to Cuffari today, House Oversight and Accountability Committee Ranking Member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) reiterated several requests for information and documents surrounding a $1.17 million settlement with former DHS OIG Deputy Inspector General Jennifer Costello.

Lawmakers had originally requested the information in a letter sent to Cuffari last July.

“In the six months that have elapsed since we wrote to you, you have failed to substantively respond to all seven of our requests,” Raskin and Thompson wrote in today’s letter.

The Project on Government Oversight first reported on the $1.17 million settlement Costello and Cuffari’s office reached last July. The settlement was signed by Costello and Cuffari’s chief of staff, Kristen Fredricks. POGO reports it is the largest known settlement involving an employee from a federal office of inspector general.

Raskin and Thompson are seeking documents related to the proposed removal of Costello, who Cuffari fired in 2020 after she made disclosures about Cuffari to Congress and to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). They are investigating why Fredricks, instead of Cuffari, signed the settlement, and also looking into the source of funds for the settlement.
The lawmakers are additionally requesting a briefing by Fredricks and DHS OIG Chief Counsel James Read by Feb. 8.

The DHS OIG did not immediately respond for a request for comment on the letter sent today.

In addition to the $1.17 million settlement, POGO reported the DHS OIG spent $1.4 million on a 2020 contract with law firm WilmerHale to conduct an investigation into allegations of misconduct by Costello and other former employees. The investigation ultimately did not substantiate any allegations of illegal misconduct.

Raskin is now investigating the role SSA Inspector General Gail Ennis may have played in the DHS OIG’s decision to contract with WilmerHale. Ennis was a partner at WilmerHale before becoming SSA IG in January 2019.

In deposition before the Merit Systems Protection Board, Cuffari said he asked Ennis to have her office conduct the investigation. Ennis declined to take it on due to the high workload, Cuffari said.

Raskin is probing whether she had a role in advising Cuffari to select WilmerHale for the investigation.

“If true, this would appear to violate your ethics agreement, which shows that you were a partner at WilmerHale and continue to have an ongoing financial stake in the firm’s profitability,” Raskin wrote in a letter to Ennis today. “As a result, your referral to your former employer WilmerHale potentially represents a financial conflict of interest.”

A spokeswoman for the SSA OIG told Federal News Network that “Inspector General Ennis looks forward to the opportunity to respond to Ranking Member Raskin to correct the blatantly inaccurate assertions made in the letter.”

Cuffari has become a controversial figure in the world of federal IGs. Last year, he drew the ire of House Democrats over his admission that he regularly deletes texts from his government-issued cellphone. The National Archives and Records Administration is investigating whether that practice violates federal records law.

Cuffari also sued members of the CIGIE for investigating complaints against him and some of his senior staff.

That lawsuit was dismissed late last year.

In their letter today, Raskin and Thompson wrote that the “decision by the courts underscores your record of frivolous attempts to shield yourself from the consequences of the work environment you have created as DHS Inspector General.”

 

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