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HUD appointee abruptly moved to lead Interior Dept.’s watchdog unit amid Zinke probe

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks near Emigrant, Mont., this month as he announces a ban on new mining claims on public lands north of Yellowstone National Park. (Matthew Brown/AP)

The Trump administration has abruptly moved a political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to serve as the acting watchdog for the Interior Department, an unusual choice for a role that is traditionally nonpartisan.

As acting inspector general at the Interior Department, Suzanne Israel Tufts will oversee four ongoing investigations into Secretary Ryan Zinke’s conduct, including inquiries into his wife’s travel and a Montana land-development deal backed by the chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton.

Tufts, who has served as HUD’s assistant secretary for administration since December, is a lawyer from Queens. Before joining the Trump administration, she founded a consulting firm that focused on providing services for tax-exempt organizations and emerging companies.

Tufts — who does not have a background in government investigations or environmental policy and regulations — will be overseeing one of the government’s most active watchdog offices. The Interior Department’s inspector general is charged with auditing and investigating potential waste, fraud and abuse at 10 agencies, including the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tufts’s move to the Interior Department, announced by HUD Secretary Ben Carson in an email to his agency’s staffers Friday, took lawmakers and officials at the Interior Department’s watchdog unit by surprise. Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, who had led the office for nine years and served as its deputy since 1999, learned of Tufts’s appointment from a colleague who showed her Carson’s email, according to a person with knowledge of the exchange.

“The Office of Inspector General has received no official communication about any leadership changes,” Nancy DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said in a statement.

Asked who hired Tufts for the position, Faith Vander Voort, an Interior Department spokeswoman, referred the question to the White House. “The position of the Inspector General has been vacant for about ten years,” Vander Voort said in an email. “This is a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed position, which would be announced by the White House.”

The White House, which has not announced that Tufts was nominated for the permanent position of inspector general, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

A HUD spokesman said Tufts’s move is a temporary detail, which means she would return to that agency. But Carson, in his email to HUD staffers last week, said she was leaving.

In his email Friday announcing her move, Carson praised Tufts’s work for HUD, calling her “an extremely enthusiastic and energetic leader who reestablished HUD’s Office of Administration, implementing improvements to the agency’s governance and internal controls.” Tufts’s new post was first reported by The Hill.

Tufts, who had been earning a $155,000 annual salary at HUD, oversaw personnel management at the department, as well as contracts and training. She replaced a career official who had voiced objections about a redecoration of Carson’s office, according to people familiar with her role.

HUD staffer who complained about Carson’s redecorating resigns under protest

Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, called Tufts’s appointment “politically suspect, given the high-profile investigations involving Zinke.”

“Why replace an acting Inspector General with a political appointee who has no government oversight experience?” she asked.

“If the administration wants someone to replace the current acting watchdog, the White House should nominate someone for the post and they should go through the Senate confirmation process,” Hempowicz added.

While inspectors general at Cabinet agencies must be confirmed by the Senate, it is highly unusual for a political appointee to be brought in as a watchdog in an acting role. Acting inspectors general are traditionally promoted from within an agency’s civil-service ranks.

Kristina Baum, spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said in an email, “The Chairman and the committee plan on learning more about this new development as [the Interior Department] makes details available.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) questioned Tufts’s appointment, given the fact that Zinke faces several independent investigations by the office.

“Inspector Generals are supposed to be independent leaders on whom the American people can rely to keep government honest and forthright,” he said in a statement. “Americans need someone at the helm of Interior’s Inspector General office who is independent, not in the back pocket of this corrupt administration.”

Kendall is a longtime government lawyer who has served as acting and deputy inspector general for the Interior Department since 2009. She took over the office from Earl E. Devaney, who left to oversee the spending of $787 billion in stimulus funding. President Barack Obama nominated Kendall to serve as inspector general, but the Senate never voted on it.

Kendall’s office is investigating a range of actions by Zinke. They include a Montana investment deal involving land owned by a foundation connected to Zinke and his wife, as well as the department’s move to block a casino project in Connecticut proposed by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes after Zinke met with lobbyists for MGM Resorts International. The casino decision, which overruled a recommendation from the Interior Department’s staff, raised questions about whether the administration was improperly influenced by MGM’s lobbying efforts.

Investigators are also probing how Zinke and his aides redrew the boundaries of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, given its impact on private property owned by a retiring state representative, Mike Noel (R).

And the inspector general’s office has been looking for months into whether Interior Department officials should have allowed Zinke’s wife, Lola, a Republican Party activist and consultant, to travel with her husband on official business.

Tracy Jan contributed to this report.