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Opinion Pompeo’s new acting inspector general is already creating a conflict of interest

Steve Linick, the now-former State Department inspector general, on Capitol Hill in October. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, President Trump announced the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, based on the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a move that surprised official Washington and infuriated Democrats. Now, there is additional concern about Linick’s replacement, Stephen Akard, who is already on the job — and is also keeping his existing State Department position, setting up a clear conflict of interest.

According to the law, the administration must notify Congress 30 days in advance before firing an inspector general. But multiple sources told me that Linick’s last day was Friday, the same day Congress learned about his ouster. Akard showed up at the office on Monday morning and immediately assumed the boss’s role. Yet Akard is keeping his job as the head of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, a Senate-confirmed political appointee position he has held since September. Adding the inspector general’s job to his duties essentially means he will be overseeing himself.

“The independence of inspectors general is paramount. Embedding a political ally to serve as IG who is still working in the very agency they are supposed to oversee is very problematic and an affront to that independence,” Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told me. “I have trouble seeing how Ambassador Akard could fulfill those duties effectively given the circumstances and without stepping down from his current role.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The Office of Foreign Missions has the job of supporting more than 800 U.S. embassies and consular offices around the world and over 100,000 diplomatic staff serving abroad, as well as dealing with foreign diplomats inside the United States. Before he joined State, Akard served as chief of staff at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under then-Gov. Mike Pence. A former career foreign service officer, in 2018 he withdrew his nomination to be director general of the Foreign Service, following criticism that he was not senior enough for that role.

Last May, the State Department Inspector General’s office issued a report after inspecting — you guessed it — the Office of Foreign Missions. This was before Akard took over, but the report was scathing. Twenty-two of the 93 positions at the office were unfilled at the time. OFM had spent $48 million over the years to build an information system that didn’t work and warranted urgent management attention, the OIG reported.

“The Office of Foreign Missions had neither a strategic planning process nor a Functional Bureau Strategy,” the Inspector General’s office wrote.

Menendez announced this week he will introduce legislation that would give Congress more power to protect inspectors general from political persecution and mandate they be career officials rather than political appointees.

“As we continue to learn of more evidence showing Secretary Pompeo actively tried to chill the inspector general’s work when he pushed the president to fire him, this irrational replacement is just another part of the Trump administration’s shameful effort to evade oversight of any kind,” Menendez said.

Democrats are riled that Akard started at OIG before 30 days had passed after congressional notification of Linick’s firing. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were hoping to use that time to find a way to investigate why Pompeo had recommended firing Linick. Pompeo has refused to give any specific justification.

No one but Pompeo really knows why Linick was fired. Pompeo has repeatedly said it couldn’t possibly be an act of “retaliation” because Pompeo wasn’t privy to Linick’s ongoing investigations — such as the secretary’s alleged use of staff for personal errands, or his emergency declaration to push through Saudi arms sales against congressional wishes.

“I’ve seen reports someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. It’s all crazy stuff,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday.

But Pompeo could be retaliating for the investigations Linick conducted in the past. For example, there’s this one from last November about how State Department officials improperly punished career staffers over their ethnicity and perceived political views. Or Pompeo could have been upset that Linick handed over to impeachment investigators the dossier of smears that Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani prepared about Marie Yovanovitch, the now-former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the Linick firing is just the latest in an administration-wide purge of inspectors general that are perceived as not sufficiently loyal. But the appointment of Akard to lead the office and keep his old job as well is additionally egregious.

Akard has a clear conflict of interest because he’s still doing his other job, Bookbinder told me, adding the inspector general’s office should be led by someone who can do it full-time. Also, political appointees tend to make bad inspectors general.

“All of that significantly undermines the inspector general office’s ability to do its work,” said Bookbinder. “So political folks are going to know they have carte blanche to do anything they want, and anybody who wants to get away with something is going to know there’s not really a cop on the beat.”

Trump and Pompeo are taking advantage of the fact that everyone is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic to purge independent inspectors general and replace them with political cronies. They are clearly calculating that no one is going to be able to do anything to stop them. Sadly, they are probably right.

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