The White House backed down Friday from plans to install a longtime Education Department official as the agency’s acting inspector general following an outcry from congressional Democrats.
The reversal came after “new personnel” in the White House reevaluated the situation, said agency spokeswoman Liz Hill.
President Trump had already signed papers designating Philip H. Rosenfelt, a career lawyer who works in the Education Department’s general counsel office, as acting inspector general. The move was never officially announced, but Education Department leaders notified the inspector general’s office and lawmakers that it was official.
That prompted protests from congressional Democrats. And the spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, Catherine Grant, expressed concern that someone who had been involved with agency decision-making would be in the watchdog role.
“This presents OIG independence problems,” Grant said, referring to the Office of Inspector General. She said her office was informed Wednesday that the change was effective “immediately.”
Three Democrats with top posts on panels with oversight of the Education Department wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressing their concerns. The lawmakers were Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee; Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House Appropriations education subcommittee.
“The conflicts or appearances of conflict are a result of Mr. Rosenfelt’s prior work in the Department’s Office of General Counsel, which has a role implementing virtually all programs” that the inspector general investigates, the lawmakers wrote.
Inspectors general have long been a critical element of oversight at federal agencies, and Democrats are particularly interested in the Education Department’s office given their ongoing criticism of DeVos’s leadership. For example, the inspector general’s office has said it plans to look into the agency’s dismissal of certain civil rights complaints.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote Trump on Thursday to say it was “troubling” that the change was made without explanation and to express concern that Rosenfelt was still apparently serving in the general counsel’s office.
Deputy Inspector General Sandra D. Bruce has been serving as acting inspector general since Dec. 1, following the retirement of Kathleen S. Tighe. Bruce was automatically elevated to the top spot after it became vacant, but the White House had planned to name its own person to act in the role until Trump selected someone for the post permanently, an appointment requiring Senate confirmation.
On Friday, Hill, the agency’s spokeswoman, said Rosenfelt never intended to keep his current job while serving as acting inspector general. Still, she said, the White House reversed course and withdrew the appointment.
“After the designation of the Acting IG was made, the matter came to the attention of new personnel in the White House,” she said in a statement. “After they reevaluated the situation, the decision was made, in an abundance of caution, to rescind the designation.”