Her departure ends a madcap week, as the administration quickly scuttled an arrangement to make Tufts acting Interior watchdog amid media reports and scrutiny from Capitol Hill lawmakers. Tufts did not respond to messages left on her cellphone.
Tufts, an attorney from Queens
who worked on President Trump’s campaign, was serving as assistant secretary for administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She had not been at work for at least two months, according to three people with knowledge of her absence, but was still on the payroll.
On Oct. 12, HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced to agency staff that Tufts would be assigned to Interior. Top White House officials then said they did not know about the plan. The apparent arrangement between Interior and HUD raised questions about how and why a political appointee with no experience handling government investigations was chosen to lead such an active watchdog office.
Mary Kendall, who has served as Interior’s deputy inspector general for nine years but was not confirmed by the Senate to the top spot, is conducting at least four investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s conduct. Two of the probes center on the secretary’s involvement in a Montana land deal, and his role in blocking two Connecticut tribes’ application to open a casino.
Investigators recently issued two subpoenas for documents to entities tied to the probes, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
On Thursday — amid mounting criticism by Capitol Hill Democrats and watchdog groups of what appeared to be an unorthodox arrangement between the agencies to assign a Trump loyalist to oversee Kendall — the administration backed off.
Interior officials said they had never approved Tufts’s hiring and called Carson’s announcement “100 percent false information.” The public rebuke of Carson was striking, particularly since he and Zinke are close friends.
HUD spokesman Raphael Williams said in a statement late Friday that Tufts resigned.
A HUD official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that “due to a recent miscommunication at the staff level, HUD mistakenly announced Ms. Tufts was going to be detailed to another agency.”
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said Tufts was referred to department officials by the White House “as a potential candidate” for a position in the inspector general’s office but was not offered a job.
Tufts, 61, is a former consultant and attorney. It was unclear how her background qualified her for an inspector general’s role. Her résumé, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the advocacy group American Oversight, shows that she volunteered for “Trump-Pence 2017” by helping to train and deploy lawyers in the field. She also cites work with the Republican National Lawyers Association on behalf of the Trump-Pence campaign in both Philadelphia and in New York, and said she was “responsible for recruiting and training 20 percent of the attorneys sent into the field.”
In an email a week ago with the subject line “A Fond Farewell,” Carson wrote to HUD staffers: “It is with mixed emotions that I announce that Suzanne Israel Tufts, our Assistant Secretary for Administration, has decided to leave HUD to become Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior.”
In recent days, Tufts was referred by the White House to interview with a group of inspectors general who vet potential candidates for permanent, Senate-confirmed watchdog positions. As with the acting job, her candidacy for a permanent position at another agency was highly unusual because inspectors general, while Senate confirmed, are not supposed to be partisan.
While presidents have the right to hire and fire inspectors general, the Inspector General Act of 1978 specifies that candidates should be chosen “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations.”