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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 TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' 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 ChaoThe FCC's decision to reallocate the safety band spectrum will impede efforts to save lives Top Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - US vaccine effort takes hit with Johnson & Johnson pause 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: House targets tech giants with antitrust bills | Oversight chair presses JBS over payment to hackers | Trump spokesman to join tech company | YouTube suspends GOP senator Teamsters refused to pay a ransomware attack in 2019 Oversight chair presses JBS on why it paid ransom over cyberattack MORE (D-N.Y.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioHouse moderates unveil .25T infrastructure plan This week: Democrats set to begin chaotic three-week sprint Biden rejects new GOP offer as spending talks drag on MORE (D-Ore.) and Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyTlaib, Democrats slam GOP calls for border oversight to fight opioid crisis Shakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' House Democrats to Schumer: Vote again on Jan. 6 probe 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 McConnellMaher goes after Manchin: 'Most powerful Republican in the Senate' Supreme Court confounding its partisan critics Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin 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) MenendezSanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale Sanders push to block arms sale to Israel doomed in Senate Schumer tactics on China bill reveal broader trade strategy MORE (D-N.J.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelDemocrats call on Blinken to set new sexual misconduct policies at State Department Lawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress MORE (D-N.Y.) and looking into whether the ouster was linked to the official's review of wrongdoing by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: Biden foreign policy in focus as Dem tensions boil up back home Sunday shows preview: Infrastructure expected to dominate as talks continue to drag The triumph and tragedy of 1989: Why Tiananmen still matters MORE.

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