Update: Following fierce criticism of Tuft’s appointment, Department of the Interior officials announced Thursday that she will not be appointed Inspector General or moved to DOI to fill any position. “Ms. Tufts is not employed by the Department and no decision was ever made to move her to Interior,” DOI Press Secretary Heather Swift said in a statement.
The Center for Western Priorities, a frequent critic of Zinke's management, stated: "It's truly bizarre that it took Secretary Zinke's office more than a day to correct a story that they now claim is false. Either Secretary Zinke's office is not being truthful or they're just not competent enough to perform basic functions. Regardless, the Office of Inspector General is vital to a well-functioning Interior Department."
At last count, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was the subject of 14 separate government investigations. (A new record!) But that number could soon be zero. That’s because Zinke just fired the Department of the Interior’s acting inspector general.
The news doesn’t stop there. Not only did Mary Kendall, the acting inspector general, not learn she was being replaced until The Hill broke the news this morning, but her replacement will likely be able to fill the role without needing to go through Senate confirmation.
Kendall—who’s served as acting inspector general at the DOI for ten years, and previously spent a decade as deputy inspector general—is being replaced by Suzanne Israel Tufts, a Republican lawyer who worked on the Trump campaign, and then was appointed to the role of assistant secretary of administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Tufts will not need to undergo Senate confirmation to fill the new role, as she was already approved by Congress for her job at HUD.
Tufts, who will now handle oversight of the investigations into Zinke, was appointed to HUD to replace an official who blew the whistle on Ben Carson’s taxpayer-funded $31,000 dining set.
If you think that sounds unethical, you’re not alone. “We are particularly worried that she’s a political appointee without any obvious government oversight experience,” Danielle Brian, the executive director of the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight, told NBC. “And they are sliding her in under the radar of any Senate confirmation process to take over charged investigations into the behavior of the cabinet secretary.”
“This reeks of retaliation for the shocking number of investigations into Secretary Zinke’s unethical conduct,” Chris Saeger, the executive director of the Western Values Project, said in a release. “He should immediately explain the reasons why the current inspector general is leaving and if he fails to, Congress should demand answers.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz), a ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the move “stinks to high heaven.” He went on to tell The Hill: “Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG. After looking around, the best person they could find is a Trump political operative at HUD who turned a blind eye to Secretary Carson’s $31,000 dining set.”
Meanwhile, one of the scandals surrounding Zinke is the $139,000 bill for new doors at his Washington office. He also faces investigations for his lavish travel arrangements, threatening members of Congress, a potentially illegal real estate deal, and re-assigning senior DOI employees he didn’t consider “loyal.”
Perhaps most troubling, though, is Zinke’s pattern of putting business before the environment when it comes to decision making on public land. He ignored public comment when he recommended that the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments be shrunk (a move that benefited extractive industries), has scrubbed mention of climate change from scientific reports commissioned by DOI, halted studies into the environmental impacts of drilling and mining, sabotaged the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and is doing away with compensatory mitigation polices for companies that damage the environment.
All that was with impartial oversight at DOI. What will Zinke do without it?