The Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Joseph V. Cuffari, has responded to a request from the Senate Committee on the Judiciary regarding diminished and delayed reports of sexual harassment and other misconduct at DHS. When confirmed as Inspector General in July 2019, after being nominated by then President Donald Trump, Cuffari acknowledged inherent problems at the office and pledged to clean it up.
The Senate Committee’s April 26 letter noted that a report released by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) suggested intolerable levels of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at DHS, as well as efforts by the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) to delay the release of an unpublished report containing troubling findings about apparent widespread sexual harassment and misconduct within the agency.
“Such findings demand an urgent agency-wide response,” the letter continued. “However, delays and revisions in publishing the report appear to have downplayed the severity of the crisis.”
On April 8, POGO called on President Biden to remove Cuffari. The independent watchdog cited several reasons such as the removal of evidence from a report “showing that Customs and Border Protection substantiated domestic violence charges in 30 cases involving its employees — then continued to allow them access to government firearms”.
CNN also recently reported that Cuffari is being investigated as part of a newly revealed probe looking into allegations of retaliation.
Regarding the yet to be published report into DHS misconduct, Cuffari told the Senate Committee that it has been plagued by problems from the outset. “The first problem was the failure of senior DHS OIG officials who preceded me to appreciate the significance of the survey results they received nearly four years ago and their choice to withhold information about the survey from me,” he said. “The second problem was the intransigence of some inspectors, who refused to accept the input of subject matter experts. These problems caused serious delays, and as a result, the information in the most recent draft report does not satisfy the “currency” criterion found in section 2 of the Inspector General Act.”
The Inspector General said that he had now also provided the Department with the results of the survey because “I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to provide the Committee with the results without also providing them to the Department”.
The survey was administered in June and July of 2018 via secure electronic means to ensure confidentiality. “I have no insight into the thinking of the DHS OIG officials who proposed and approved the survey, as the survey had already been completed roughly a year before I was confirmed as Inspector General,” Cuffari said. “To my knowledge, Acting Inspector General [John] Kelly, and others who were in a position to report the results to DHS leadership and to Congress in the year leading up to my confirmation never did so.”
He disclosed that staff initially withheld information about the survey from him and took over two years to prepare a draft report, which he received in December 2020. Cuffari told the Senate Committee that “some Office of Evaluation and Inspections staff were uncooperative and placed their subjective policy preferences ahead of the DHS OIG mission of producing impartial and unbiased work”. When he received it, Cuffari requested revisions, for example because it blurred distinctions between criminal convictions and administrative discipline. He also felt it would call into question OIG’s impartiality.
“Blue Book standards require a report that examines an agency’s compliance with law, regulation, and policy to be informed by authoritative expert opinion on the relevant laws and regulations and associated best practices. A report that substituted the subjective policy preferences of inspectors for the lawful strategic judgments made by DHS attorneys and managers, which themselves are rooted in authoritative interpretations of law and accepted best practice, would not be taken seriously and would call into question DHS OIG’s impartiality.”
Cuffari added that he has approved a project proposal under which another survey will be administered in Fiscal Year 2023. “A second survey would likely provide DHS leadership with useful information about any changes in response patterns since 2018 and give OIG a foundation to scope future work in this area,” the Inspector General said.
He thanked the Senate Committee for the opportunity to put the record straight and asked that they not treat this discussion of internal DHS OIG deliberations as precedent.