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HUD’s top watchdog: Agency impeded probe into Puerto Rico hurricane aid

In Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, a mural of the Puerto Rican flag, shown in August, includes the number of people found to have died as a result of 2017's Hurricane Maria. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The Department of Housing and Urban Development “unreasonably” delayed production of emails and other records related to the agency’s handling of hurricane relief funding for Puerto Rico, HUD’s top watchdog said Tuesday.

HUD’s inspector general told congressional staffers that the delays hampered her office’s oversight mission.

“Delayed access to departmental records causes OIG [Office of Inspector General] oversight efforts to be diluted, become stale, or worse, halt entirely,” Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis wrote to HUD Secretary Ben Carson this week.

The Monday memo was shared with staffers with the House and Senate Appropriations committees and obtained by The Washington Post.

Oliver Davis spoke with Carson on Monday about the agency’s history of delays in complying with the IG’s requests for information, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private interaction.

The inspector general’s office, at Congress’s request, is reviewing whether the White House slowed the flow of hurricane relief to Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to recover after being hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The IG review is part of a broader examination of HUD’s administration of disaster grants.

HUD did not initially respond to a request for comment, but after this report was published online, an agency spokesman said that HUD had made all emails requested by the inspector general available for review on Friday.

“HUD has provided all requested emails to its Office of Inspector General, which included more than 2.4 million emails from the past 18 months,” said HUD spokesman Raffi Williams. “Nearly all of these emails, more than 95 percent, have nothing to do with Puerto Rico or the department’s response to the 2017 storms. HUD’s Office of General Counsel filled this request in 18 days, faster than any other formal request we have record of.”

When asked about the response from the HUD spokesman, the IG’s office declined to comment.

Agencies have been instructed to work with White House lawyers on all oversight and document requests, according to White House officials. The White House has also wanted administration lawyers present for witness interviews, the officials said, though it is unclear whether anyone from HUD has been interviewed.

Trump has complained in private and public about what he sees as wasteful spending in Puerto Rico, igniting a political firestorm about the administration’s response to the hurricane.

The president has been far more involved in reviewing disaster relief for Puerto Rico than for Texas, Alabama or other states, according to current and former administration officials.

Trump has repeatedly told aides that the funds for Puerto Rico must be closely watched because the territory’s government is corrupt and the economy was in poor shape before Maria, according to White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. He has also said he wants the White House to monitor how the Federal Emergency Management Agency is spending the money.

White House lawyers are planning to argue executive privilege on any oversight request that involves presidential deliberations.

An administration official with knowledge of the inspector general’s inquiry characterized the records request as “really broad.” The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration processes, said the HUD IG is seeking documents between the White House and HUD — records that are “pre-decisional and deliberative” and could be subject to executive privilege.

“The OIG has put the department on ample notice that responses to our requests are untimely, that such delays negatively affect our work, and that the delays in OIG access fail to comply with the law,” Oliver Davis wrote in the Monday memo to Carson.

The average wait time for HUD electronic records has increased from approximately 95 calendar days in 2017 to 151 calendar days in 2018, or more than 60 percent, Oliver Davis noted in the letter.

In addition, 20 requests in 2018 took longer than six months, and in one instance HUD took eight months to produce the emails of four employees, Oliver Davis wrote.

The letter noted that her office had previously flagged “unacceptable delays” in the agency’s production of electronic records in response to requests from the IG, congressional oversight committees and litigation under the Freedom of Information Act.

A December 2017 evaluation by the HUD inspector general said the agency’s response times “fail to comply with the law requiring timely OIG access to all department information.”

The letter, characterized by the IG’s office as a “management alert,” did not specifically reference Puerto Rico but said the delays “impact critical investigative decisions” and “hamper the OIG in carrying out its statutory mission to detect and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse.” It said the office has had to delay witness interviews in many investigations.

Oliver Davis told congressional staffers Tuesday that HUD’s “systemic lack of cooperation,” including on the Puerto Rico inquiry, was the driving factor behind creating the “management alert,” according to someone with direct knowledge of the meeting who did not have permission to speak on the record.

The IG said HUD’s response time worsened once her office began its Puerto Rico investigation, according to a Senate staffer.

Oliver Davis told congressional staffers that the HUD general counsel has begun using the term “executive privilege” as a new reason for any delay in turning over certain documents, said the Senate staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The IG also expressed concern with HUD attorneys’ desire to be present for witness testimonies, according to the Senate staffer.

Requiring HUD attorneys to approve inspector-general records requests compromises the office’s independence, because it gives the department insight into investigations, Oliver Davis’s letter said. It also threatens the inspector general’s ability to protect whistleblowers’ identities, as required by law.

“The potential exists for the department to attempt to scope and direct our work,” Oliver Davis wrote.