A nearly two-year investigation into allegations of misconduct by the Department of Homeland Security’s chief watchdog expanded this week to include his role in missing Secret Service text messages from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The records request, which was revealed in a federal lawsuit this week filed by Cuffari and his staff against the panel of inspectors leading the probe, suggests new urgency in a high-profile investigation that began in May 2021 and has since evolved into a wide-ranging inquiry into dozens of allegations of misconduct, including partisan decision-making, investigative failures and retaliation against whistleblowers.
Democratic lawmakers have previously sought answers from Cuffari about when he learned of the missing texts, information that could shed light on what happened on Jan. 6 and during the days leading up to the attack, and why he did not more aggressively try to recover them.
Cuffari has denied any improper conduct and argued that his efforts to improve what he describes as a dysfunctional office he inherited have been met with resistance from employees.
The probe has paralyzed the inspector general’s office, alienated Cuffari from the watchdog community and led to calls for President Biden to fire him. The president has signaled that he intends to stay out of the process until the panel from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) completes its work. When a federal watchdog is accused of misconduct and the organization decides that it warrants attention, another inspector general is assigned to investigate, under a system set up by Congress.
Susan Ruge-Hudson, special counselor to CIGIE, said in an email that the organization “is reviewing the complaint and we look forward to working with the Department of Justice on this matter.”
Cuffari, his chief of staff, Kristen Fredericks, and his general counsel, James Read, as well as a former government official, Joseph Gangloff — the four who filed the federal lawsuit — declined to comment through a spokesman for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a group representing them funded by conservative legal scholars that is devoted to fighting the “unconstitutional administrative state within our U.S. government,” according to its website.
The lawsuit, an unusual broadside against the federal watchdog community by one of its own, accuses the panel of exceeding its authority and of “illegal interference” in the operations of one of the government’s largest oversight offices.
It has set off hand-wringing and anger in the inspector general community. CIGIE leaders met by Zoom on Wednesday to discuss how to proceed and notified the Justice Department, which will represent them.
“He’s challenged the structure of a body statutorily created by Congress,” said one inspector general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “We’re appalled and exhausted by him.”
Cuffari, confirmed by the Senate in July 2019, has faced questions from lawmakers and advocates since last summer over his agency’s handling of the missing text messages from the Jan. 6 attack.
After learning that the messages had been erased as part of a migration to new devices, Cuffari waited months to disclose to Congress that his office had discovered the deletions and did not press Homeland Security officials to explain why they did not preserve the records. The Secret Service later provided the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack with thousands of records after reviewing its communications databases from the time of the attack, but nearly all of the records had been shared previously with Cuffari’s office and Congress.
Cuffari also blocked his own investigators from examining the Secret Service agents’ phones. His actions prompted several congressional inquiries led by Democrats, who controlled the House last year.
Cuffari’s 173-page complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia discloses that investigators from CIGIE’s Integrity Committee recently told Cuffari and Fredericks that “alleged deletions of the U.S. Secret Service text messages which referenced the events of January 6, 2021” are a new subject of their probe. The lawsuit denies that any official in the inspector general’s office “has any control over the Secret Service or over where texts by members of that organization go.”
The complaint alleges broadly that investigators from the office of Department of Transportation Inspector General Eric Soskin, which is conducting the probe, have harassed Cuffari and his staff to respond to requests for document and other information.
Cuffari, Fredericks and Read also complain that investigators have refused their demands to have government lawyers represent them, forcing them to pay their own legal bills — a common practice when federal employees come under investigation. The lawsuit claims the Integrity Committee has abused its power and is operating under an “unconstitutional” structure, since its members are not appointed by the president. The plaintiffs seek to prohibit the investigation into Cuffari and find the committee’s existence unlawful.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), who chaired the Jan. 6 committee, said in a statement in response to the lawsuit that “CIGIE’s congressional mandate is not only to develop policies for offices of inspectors general, but to promptly investigate allegations of wrongdoing made against inspectors general or their staff. It must be allowed to do its job."
Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor who served as inspector general at the Justice Department from 1994 to 1999, predicted that “the lawsuit will likely fail” because “I do think the Court will not want to enmesh itself in the inner workings of the inspector general community.”
But Bromwich, who was the subject of an investigation during his tenure, said that “there is no sound framework for investigating allegations against [inspectors general] themselves.” The Integrity Committee, he said, “has been established as the least-bad-of-all-evils solution, but it’s not great.”
Biden has faced calls to fire Cuffari from the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which advocates for changes to the federal watchdog system. Last fall, employees from every department of Cuffari’s office sent the president an unsigned letter calling on him to dismiss the inspector general, describing a climate of “continuous mismanagement of DHS OIG at its highest levels.” A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Gangloff, the fourth plaintiff in the lawsuit, does not work at Homeland Security, but is former chief counsel for the Social Security Administration inspector general, Gail Ennis. Ennis is under multiple investigations following reporting by The Washington Post that revealed how an anti-fraud program imposed massive penalties on disabled and elderly people. One probe is being led by the CIGIE panel.
The lawsuit says that Gangloff, who was in charge of the program, was notified last year that he is under investigation. He alleges that he has not been afforded a venue to respond or hear details. He disputes the Integrity Committee’s right to investigate him since he has left government service.
The lawsuit is not Cuffari’s first attempt to push back against the investigation. He and his staff have for months refused to release documents and tried to block interviews, effectively delaying the probe, as The Post has reported.
Cuffari also enlisted Republican allies in Congress to demand that investigators scale back records requests and to press investigators to explain their motives. Cuffari and his staff have complained to senators of a politically motivated fishing expedition designed to undermine him and his attempts to clean up the inspector general’s office.
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.