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Homeland Security watchdog Cuffari faces rebukes from lawmakers in missing texts case

Violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

The Department of Homeland Security’s chief watchdog has rejected calls from leading Democratic legislators to recuse himself from the investigation into the erasure of text messages that Secret Service agents exchanged during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, drawing fresh rebukes from lawmakers on Tuesday.

Inspector General Joseph Cuffari said in a letter made public Tuesday that he would not share investigative documents or allow his top lieutenants to sit for transcribed interviews before House committees investigating the attack, nor would he provide documents that lawmakers requested.

Cuffari said forcing him to step aside “has no legal basis” and “would upend the very independence that Congress has established for Inspectors General,” according to the letter he sent to House oversight committees on Aug. 8.

The House committees on Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform published his letter Tuesday, along with their response accusing Cuffari of delaying their inquiry into one of the most grievous attacks in U.S. history. Cuffari surprised legislators last month with a letter accusing the Secret Service of erasing text messages from the time of the attack after he had asked for them.

Homeland Security watchdog previously accused of misleading investigators, report says

But committee members soon learned that Cuffari and his staff had known about the missing messages for months, failed to notify Congress or the Homeland Security secretary and canceled steps to retrieve the texts. Lawmakers said the messages could contain crucial evidence because Secret Service agents shadow presidents and other top officials and may have witnessed their actions that day.

“Your obstruction of the Committees’ investigations is unacceptable, and your justifications for this noncompliance appear to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Congress’s authority and your duties as an Inspector General,” Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Bennie G. Thompson, chairman of the Jan. 6 committee and the House Committee on Homeland Security, wrote to Cuffari on Tuesday.

“If you continue to refuse to comply with our requests, we will have no choice but to consider alternate measures to ensure your compliance,” wrote Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Thompson (D-Miss.).

The committees would not elaborate on what those steps might be, a spokeswoman said.

Ahead of the Jan. 6 committee's next hearing, members asked the Secret Service agency to turn over reportedly deleted text messages from the Capitol attack. (Video: The Washington Post)

Cuffari was nominated by former president Donald Trump, whose supporters stormed the Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The lawmakers said in a letter that Cuffari’s refusal is part of a pattern of resistance to their efforts to delve into complaints about his office. They said they have written to him three times since May to request documents about allegations that his office “censored findings of domestic abuse and sexual harassment” by DHS workers, his failure to promptly notify Congress about the missing Secret Service texts, and new reports that documented his “repeated failures” to recover the messages.

Cuffari is also under an investigation being overseen by an independent watchdog, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. People familiar with that investigation have also accused Cuffari of refusing to release some records and blocking interviews with staff members, delaying that inquiry, which has now lasted more than 15 months.

In his Aug. 8 letter to the committees, Cuffari said he has been conducting Jan. 6 investigations in coordination with inspectors general at the Justice, Defense and Interior departments, as well as agencies in the executive and legislative branches. He noted that he has complained to Congress about difficulties obtaining information from DHS since last year, and blamed “DHS’ resistance” for delays.

He said he has published one review of the Jan. 6 attack and is working on two others. “When those two ongoing reviews are complete, we will be happy to provide briefings about them,” he wrote.

“To my knowledge, I am the only Inspector General, to date, who has publicly reported access issues and delays about January 6 to Congress,” he wrote.

But Cuffari declined to provide documents that he said could compromise his ongoing investigation. He opened a criminal investigation in July, and ordered the Secret Service to stop efforts to retrieve the missing messages. The agency has said the messages were lost as part of a planned changeover in their phones.

Watchdog launches criminal probe over missing Secret Service messages

“Sharing information about ongoing criminal investigations could impact potential witnesses or others who may be involved in the investigative process,” Cuffari wrote. “To protect the integrity of our work and preserve our independence, we do not share information about ongoing matters, like the information you requested in your letters.

“Similarly, we do not authorize our staff to sit for transcribed interviews with your committee about these ongoing matters,” he wrote. “Once these matters are complete, we will consider a renewed request for documents, briefings, or transcribed interviews.”

But the committees disputed Cuffari’s contention that he is unable to share records with lawmakers and said they are concerned that his office is engaging in delay tactics to prevent the committee from drilling into the reasons for the delays.

“We are concerned that you are now improperly using a criminal investigation that you only recently announced to hide evidence from Congress of your misconduct and mismanagement,” they wrote.

They said Cuffari failed for more than a year to alert them about the Secret Service’s text messages, and in some cases “left the impression that access issues had been resolved.”

When Cuffari briefed the Homeland Security Committee on July 15 about the missing Secret Service text messages, they wrote, “that was 14 months after you reportedly learned the text messages were unavailable.”

They said Cuffari also failed to reveal that his office told DHS in July 2021 that it “no longer needed the text messages” and that Trump’s former acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf’s and acting deputy Ken Cuccinelli’s text messages were also unavailable.

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