Dual investigations exacerbate President Obama’s problems with political appointees

President Obama faces a bit of a crisis these days with political appointees as he deals with longstanding vacancies in many top administration positions and fierce opposition against some of his latest nominees for those roles.

Two recent controversies have complicated matters further for the president, as they involve an Obama nominee and one of the administration’s many interim office-holders, both of whom are confronting accusations of wrongdoing.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandros Mayorkas, whom Obama recently nominated for second-in-command at the Department of Homeland Security, is under investigation for allegedly helping a politically connected firm secure visas for foreign workers. Meanwhile, a Senate subcommittee is investigating the acting inspector general in charge of examining those claims, Charles Edwards.

(Charles Dharapak/AP) - Homeland Security deputy inspector general Charles Edwards.
(Charles Dharapak/AP) – Homeland Security deputy inspector general Charles Edwards.

Whistleblowers have accused Edwards of violating anti-nepotism laws, using agency money to pursue a degree at Nova Southeaster University in Fort Lauderdale and requiring staff members to work on his dissertation, among other claims, according to a letter to the inspector general from the heads of the Senate panel.

Edwards described the accusations in an e-mail to the Washington Post as “false allegations” and “personal attacks.” He noted that the Council on Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency has reviewed and dismissed similar allegations against him.

Documents obtained through FOIA requests by the watchdog group Cause of Action show that Edwards expensed nearly $1,000 in costs for a trip to south Florida that included a stay at a hotel near Nova Southeast. The documents also show that he intervened to ensure that his wife was granted a request to telework from India for seven months and that he helped obtain a DHS international Blackberry for her to use.

The heads of the Senate subcommittee, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), wrote to Edwards in June demanding information and documents related to the allegations.

As the inspector general prepares to defend himself, he is investigating whether Mayorkas helped secure visas for foreign workers on behalf of GreenTech Automotive, an electric car company with ties to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Anthony Rodham, the brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP) - .S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas.
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP) – .S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas.

Mayorkas denied the allegations at a congressional hearing last week, calling the suggestions of improper influence “unequivocally false.” However, he acknowledged meeting with McAuliffe to discuss concerns about the pace of visa approvals.

“I listened to his complaint and went back to my work,” Mayorkas said. “I enforce the law based on the facts. I do not put my finger on the scales of justice.”

Mayorkas found himself in hot water during a previous congressional hearing due to connections with a Clinton-era clemency controversy that involved another Hillary Clinton sibling, Hugh Rodham.

The father of convicted cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali paid Hugh Rodham $200,000 to lobby for the commutation of his son during Bill Clinton’s presidency, according to a February 2001 Associated Press report. Mayorkas admitted in an apologetic memo to his staff at the time that he called the White House counsel’s office on behalf of Vignali.

“It was a mistake on my part to engage in that conversation at all,” Mayorkas testified during a 2009 confirmation hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was considering him for his current role.

Mayorkas’s involvement in that controversy may come back to haunt him as his already-contentious confirmation test continues in the Senate.

The White House has stood behind its pick. Presidential counsel Kathryn Ruemmer wrote to the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee that “we have no concerns” about Mayorkas’s suitability for the No. 2 spot at DHS. She noted that the FBI conducted a background check on the nominee and that the White House had vetted him as well.

Outside of the Mayorkas issue, Obama is likely to face increased pressure to replace Edwards with a permanent inspector general, regardless of what Senate investigators turn up in their probe of the interim officeholder. Many good-government groups say acting inspectors are seen as less credible, and that the prospect of returning to the lower ranks after a successor is confirmed can compromise their independence.

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks | July 29, 2013