Updated April 24 at 6 p.m. to include a statement from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson that Charles Edwards has been placed on administrative leave.
The former acting inspector general of the Homeland Security Department has been placed on administrative leave following the release of a Senate subcommittee report that says he “jeopardized the independence” of the office he once led.
In a statement provided to Federal News Radio, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said he placed former acting IG Charles Edwards on leave after reviewing the report released Thursday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight.
The report says Edwards altered or delayed reports to accommodate senior DHS officials, sought outside legal advice in violation of the laws governing agency IGs and failed to recuse himself from some audits despite concerns over conflicts of interest involving his wife, who was also employed by the agency.
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Edwards resigned from his IG post in December just days before he was scheduled to testify before the subcommittee. He had been reassigned to the department’s Science and Technology Directorate.
“Since I took office in December, I have made clear that injecting a new energy in the leadership of DHS is a top priority,” Johnson said in the statement. “Since December, the Senate has confirmed seven of the President’s nominees for senior positions in this Department, including myself and John Roth, our new inspector general. I have also made clear to our leadership that ethics in government, setting the example, and remaining above reproach are essential elements of good leadership.”
Johnson said he has requested a briefing from the subcommittee’s investigators.
No evidence of nepotism
The Senate panel, headed by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R- Wis.), began investigating Edwards’ tenure as IG last year.
The subcommittee received dozens of complaints about Edwards’ conduct, according to Johnson and McCaskill’s report, including that he allegedly abused agency resources, improperly used a government vehicle and violated anti-nepotism laws regarding his wife’s employment at the agency.
The subcommittee’s report cleared Edwards of the nepotism allegations, finding that his wife’s employment at the IG’s office predated his own and that Edwards did not intervene in helping her get approval to telework from India for extended periods of time. Edwards’ use of a government vehicle also “appeared to comply” with DHS rules, the report stated. Many other allegations, such as whether he abused agency resources, could not be substantiated, the report stated.
Edwards has denied wrongdoing on all counts from the beginning, calling them “baseless allegations.” Last summer, he told Federal News Radio he believed the Senate probe would clear his name.
Report: Edwards close with DHS officials supposed to oversee
Still, the panel’s investigation concluded the IG office’s independence eroded under Edwards’ tenure.
“An Office of Inspector General is intended to be beyond reproach,” Johnson said in a statement. “The problems in that office were allowed to persist for far too long.”
Citing interviews with 35 current and former OIG officials and approximately 25,000 pages of emails and other documents, the report found Edwards maintained close, personal relationships with senior DHS officials, including the DHS chief of staff and DHS acting counsel.
“Mr. Edwards communicated frequently with DHS senior officials and considered them personal friends,” the report stated.
In fact, Edwards socialized with senior political DHS officials. Emails cited in the report indicate Edwards set up drink and dinner plans with those officials on multiple occasions.
Edwards also frequently provided these officials with email updates on his office’s investigations — email chains that excluded other members of the IG office, according to the report.
When interviewed by subcommittee staff later, a senior OIG official called the practice “concerning.”
IG sought outside legal advice, according to investigators
The report also stated that Edwards frequently sought assistance from DHS acting counsel instead of the IGs own counsel, according to at least four former OIG officials. Federal law requires IGs to obtain legal advice only from their own lawyers or that of another agency’s IG in order to maintain independence.
Nevertheless, in a March 2012 email to the agency’s acting counsel, Edwards asked for help preparing his testimony before a House committee on DHS’ fusion centers, according to the report.
In another case, the DHS acting counsel provided Edwards with “personal edits” to a memorandum of understanding between the OIG and the FBI even though DHS, itself, was not a party to the memo. Edwards was the only OIG official included on the email.
The IG’s counsel told Senate investigators he was “cut out of some of the major decison-making” in the office.
Edwards was angling for permanent job, report says
The report said Edwards’ misconduct came at a time when he was openly angling to be nominated as the agency’s permanent IG. Several of Edwards’ former colleagues said his desire for a nomination “went beyond proper ambition,” according to the report.
“One former OIG official said that Mr. Edwards would boast about his close relationship with members of DHS management, how frequently he met or dined with DHS management, and that his nomination was all but assured,” the report stated.
Edwards acknowledged to the committee that he wanted the permanent IG nomination but said he wouldn’t have sacrificed the independence of the office to do so.
The subcommittee said it could not conclude whether Edwards abused agency resources in his pursuit of the nomination.
OIG environment ‘toxic,’ former official says
Current and former employees also told Senate investigators Edwards presided over a hostile work environment, described as “toxic, totally dysfunctional and oppressive” by one former employee.
Citing a “my way or the highway” management style and frequent threats to put employees who disagreed with him on administrative leave, another former employee said the office had been “run into the ground,” under Edwards’ leadership.
John Roth, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration’s criminal investigations, was confirmed by the Senate to be the permanent head of the DHS IG’s office last month. Roth told senators at his nomination hearing one of his top priorities would be rebuilding morale in the office.
“My goal is to try to have people hit the reset button, and whatever happened in the past has happened in the past,” he said at the time.
In a statement released Thursday, McCaskill said the report highlights the need for qualified, permanent IGs at all agencies.
“I’ve been pleased by the steps taken by the new DHS Inspector General to begin turning things around, and look forward to continuing our work to ensure we’re holding all agencies to the highest standards of accountability,” she said.