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Homeland Security watchdog previously accused of misleading investigators, report says

The Department of Homeland Security headquarters in northwest Washington on Feb. 25, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Homeland Security watchdog now under scrutiny for his handling of deleted Secret Service text messages from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol previously was accused of misleading federal investigators and running “afoul” of ethics regulations while he was in charge of a Justice Department inspector general field office in Tucson, according to a newly disclosed government report.

In the 2013 report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, which was never publicly released, investigators said they did “not believe” Joseph V. Cuffari’s explanation for why he failed to inform his supervisors — against federal rules — about his testimony in a lawsuit brought by a federal prisoner.

Separately, they found that Cuffari broke ethics rules by referring law firms to the prisoner’s family, including firms where some of his close friends worked. “We concluded Cuffari’s actions violated the [inspector general] manual’s prohibition on unethical conduct,” said the report, which also noted that he may have violated guidelines by using his government email to lobby for a position as inspector general for the Arizona National Guard, among other issues.

For a federal agent, failing to be truthful with investigators can lead to discipline, suspension and possible termination from federal service.

An internal team recommended referring Cuffari to the inspector general’s investigations unit for a deeper review of his actions, the report said — but he quickly retired and the following month joined the administration of then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) as a policy adviser for public safety.

When he was nominated five years later by President Donald Trump to become the Homeland Security watchdog, Cuffari told Senate lawmakers in a questionnaire that he had been fully truthful to investigators in their probe. Senators in both parties did not press him for details of the investigation before his confirmation by a voice vote in July 2019.

The new details in the report, which was obtained by The Washington Post, raise questions about how thoroughly Cuffari was vetted for one of the most important oversight jobs in government, experts said, and about his suitability to lead a staff of 750 auditors and investigators with oversight of an agency with a workforce of 240,000 and a $50 billion budget.

A spokesperson for Cuffari’s office who was not identified issued a statement via email Wednesday, noting that Cuffari had been fully vetted by the FBI, the White House and the Senate during the nomination process. The Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment, the statement said. The spokesperson said Cuffari “has not received nor seen the report to which you refer.”

The statement said Cuffari, who also had a military career, was proud of his record in the Air Force and in the Justice Department’s inspector general office, where he investigated alleged violations of federal prisoners’ civil rights. The spokesperson also said Cuffari received numerous awards and “retired with a spotless record from DOJ OIG.”

Cuffari’s three years as Homeland Security’s inspector general have been marked by numerous allegations of partisan decision-making and investigative failures — including, most recently, his decision in February to scrap efforts by his department to recover Secret Service texts sent during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Transportation Department inspector general has been investigating allegations for more than a year that Cuffari retaliated against several whistleblowers on his staff, according to individuals familiar with the case.

The missing Secret Service texts are now at the center of an investigation by the House committee probing the Jan. 6 attack, and Democratic lawmakers have accused Cuffari of failing to act aggressively in the case.

His nomination to Homeland Security sailed through a committee of federal inspectors general that interviewed him for less than an hour and recommended his candidacy to the Trump White House.

Despite his lack of high-level management experience and a government career in which he advanced over 20 years to a role supervising fewer than five agents in an outpost of the Justice Department’s watchdog division, the White House and the Senate moved quickly to install Cuffari at Homeland Security after controversies had engulfed a string of previous watchdogs.

“Honesty and integrity are nonnegotiable in watchdogs,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator with the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight, which advocates for revisions to the federal watchdog system and this week called on President Biden to fire Cuffari. “How can Congress, the White House and the public trust him on matters of grave public importance?”

House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), in a joint statement, said the report “raises yet more questions” about whether Cuffari can complete an investigation into the missing Secret Service text messages “with impartiality and integrity as Inspector General.”

From immigration policy to reports of sexual misconduct in the sprawling agency created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cuffari has shown an unwillingness to conduct the independent oversight of federal agencies mandated by law, critics say — instead directing his staff to tread lightly on the conduct of former political appointees in his own party to avoid embarrassing them when investigators uncovered mismanagement or misconduct.

“When he was nominated, I was beyond surprised,” recalled Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor who served as inspector general at Justice from 1994 to 1999. He called the role a huge challenge even for someone with significant management experience who had run major investigations.

“I didn’t think he had the qualifications for the job,” Bromwich said of Cuffari, whom he met several times on routine field office visits. Cuffari brought no investigative cases of significance, Bromwich and another person familiar with Cuffari’s tenure at Justice recalled.

Bromwich said he has now concluded that “his behavior in office has been even worse than I imagined it would be … He’s lost the credibility that an IG desperately needs to do the job.”

The newly revealed report centers on a 2008 case Cuffari oversaw into claims that prison guards had assaulted a federal inmate. Prosecutors declined to file charges in 2011, but Cuffari told the inmate and his mother that they could hire a lawyer to file a civil claim against the government.

Cuffari told investigators he was obligated to share that information under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. He referred the family to three law firms, including ones that employed his close friends. The family hired one of the firms.

Investigators said Cuffari did not inform his supervisors about what he was up to when he testified against the government in a hearing without permission. They also found that he violated ethics rules by sharing information that could lead to a lawsuit that would enrich his friends.

Investigators wrote that they “were skeptical of Cuffari’s assertion” that he was not aware beforehand that he would be asked to testify at a hearing in the case.

The report found that Cuffari’s testimony, without approval from his chain of command, was “in violation of the inspector general manual” and that his “personal relationship” with the inmate’s attorneys raised questions about his ethics and impartiality. His explanations, the investigators found, were “simply not credible.”

As part of their probe, investigators dug into Cuffari’s government email account from January 2011 to October 2012 and found additional matters they said could warrant review. The report said Cuffari served on an Arizona state commission on appellate court appointments without first seeking approval and donated surplus office printers to the high school where his wife worked as the principal without disclosing the donation to authorities. The report also said he used his official email account to write a recommendation for an assistant U.S. attorney’s candidacy to become a federal magistrate judge.

Now, Cuffari’s conduct has put pressure on Biden. After Trump fired four federal watchdogs in less than two months whose oversight was critical of his administration, Biden pledged as a candidate to take the opposite tack. He has kept that promise, but public accountability groups and current and former federal watchdogs are starting to chafe at his inaction.

Cuffari upended the House investigation into the Jan. 6 attack last month when he told the House and Senate Homeland Security committees that the Secret Service’s text messages had been erased as part of a program to replace the agency’s phones — after he had asked for them. But lawmakers said they have since discovered that Cuffari knew about the missing texts more than a year before he alerted Congress. The Post reported that he backed off plans to retrieve the data via forensic analysis. The scope of the missing text messages has since expanded to include those of Trump’s top Homeland Security appointees.

Thompson and Maloney have called on Cuffari to recuse himself from an investigation into the missing text messages and asked a group that represents federal watchdogs to find a replacement. The lawmakers stepped up their pressure this week, demanding that Cuffari’s top lieutenants sit for transcribed interviews this month.

Cuffari declined to scrutinize the Secret Service’s handling of the George Floyd protests in Lafayette Square in 2020 and the spread of the coronavirus in the agency, according to documents and people with knowledge of his decisions.

He also turned down calls to examine the Border Patrol’s treatment of Haitian migrants during an influx in Del Rio, Tex., leaving the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs department to do the job.

As it has shied away from politically sensitive oversight, Cuffari’s office has also failed to conduct the bread-and-butter audits and reports on contracting, spending and allegations of waste and misconduct that are central to the mission of an inspector general.

According to its website, the office published just 75 audits, inspections and evaluations in the last fiscal year, about half of its work product in 2016. Just 54 audits have gone out in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, records show.


This story previously misreported the office leading a probe into Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari. The investigation is being conducted by the office of the Transportation Department inspector general.