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Democrats to probe Trump's replacement of top Transportation Dept. watchdog

Democrats to probe Trump's replacement of top Transportation Dept. watchdog
© Bonnie Cash

The chairs of the House Oversight and Reform and Transportation and Infrastructure committees are planning to investigate President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE's replacement of a top Transportation Department (DOT) watchdog, calling it "the latest in a series of politically motivated firings."

The Democrats made the commitment in a letter sent to Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoTransportation Dept: Preparations in place for 'immediate mass shipment' of COVID-19 vaccines Women set to take key roles in Biden administration New administration, House turnover raise prospects for more diversity on K Street MORE on Tuesday, saying they are concerned the move may have been linked to an internal probe of the Cabinet member's dealings with Kentucky.

The president on Friday named Howard Elliott, the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), as the agency's acting inspector general, a position that had been filled by Mitch Behm, the agency's deputy inspector general, since January.

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The White House Counsel's Office directed the move, CNN reported, citing an administration official. The move came the same day the president moved to replace State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, the latest in a series of top watchdogs ousted by the president.

"This assault on the integrity and independence of inspectors general appears to be an intentional campaign to undermine their ability to expose corruption and protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse," Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyHillicon Valley: Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 | Defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal, includes White House cyber czar position | Officials warn hackers are targeting vaccine supply chain Defense policy bill would create new cyber czar position Sweeping financial crimes bill to hitch a ride on defense measure MORE (D-N.Y.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioDemocrats ask GAO to study COVID-19 air travel risks Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? On the Trail: Five House results illustrate a politically divided America MORE (D-Ore.) and Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyThis week: Congress races to wrap work for the year GSA offers to brief Congress next week on presidential transition Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Oversight panel, wrote Tuesday. The lawmakers also sent a letter to Elliott echoing those concerns.

In their letter, the Democrats voiced demands for information regarding ongoing audits, inspections, investigations, evaluations, reviews or other engagements by June 1. They also asked for any communications regarding the removal of Behm and Elliott's qualifications for the inspector general post.

They noted that the House Transportation panel in October asked the DOT watchdog to investigate Chao's possible conflicts of interest, such as reports that she was giving preferential treatment to projects in Kentucky.

Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE (R-Ky.). Politico reported in June 2019 that an aide to Chao helped advise McConnell and local officials on grant applications in the state.

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"We are concerned that Behm’s removal could be an effort to undermine the progress of this investigation, which we understand is ongoing," the lawmakers wrote. "Any attempt by you or your office to interfere with the Office of Inspector General’s investigation of yourself is illegal and will be thoroughly examined by our committees."

DOT maintained in a statement to The Hill that the House Democrats' letter was "not factual" since Behm "was never designated the Acting IG." A spokesperson said that Behm "continues to serve in his long-time role as deputy inspector general."

The DOT Office of Inspector General's website continues to list Behm as both deputy inspector general and acting inspector general. The DOT spokesperson said that Behm had "technically" been performing the duties of the inspector general, but that he was never officially designated as one, saying "only the president can designate an acting or nominate a permanent, and he did both last Friday."

In response to the Democrats' comments about Chao, the DOT spokesperson pointed to a previous statement from the department regarding reports about Chao's alleged conflicts of interest. DOT said in October that the allegations were a "politically motivated waste of time."

Behm became the top Transportation Department watchdog in January after the former inspector general, Calvin Scovell, retired. 

Democrats argued that at a minimum Elliott should resign as PHMSA administrator and recuse himself from matters involving PHMSA or the secretary's office if he stays on as acting inspector general.

The lawmakers argued that Elliott would "have an inherent conflict of interest" if he were reporting to the Transportation secretary while acting in a role required by law to be independent.

DOT said that Elliott would be expected to recuse himself from Office of Inspector General audits or investigations of PHMSA.

Trump in early April removed intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson and acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, who had been tasked with overseeing the management of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The president's move to remove Linick, the inspector general of the State Department, prompted congressional Democrats to immediately launch an investigation into decision. The probe is being led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Judge whose son was killed by gunman: 'Federal judiciary is under attack' Emergency housing assistance for older adults needed now MORE (D-N.J.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelRep. David Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel Democrats elect Meeks as first Black Foreign Affairs chairman The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates MORE (D-N.Y.) and looking into whether the ouster was linked to the official's review of wrongdoing by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo imposes visa restrictions on Chinese officials over 'intimidation' tactics Israel's new Gulf relations give Biden's team a new Middle East hub Pompeo knocks Turkey in NATO speech: report MORE.

— This report was updated on May 20 at 9:55 a.m.