Biden under increasing pressure to fire housing inspector general
President Biden is coming under increasing pressure to fire the inspector general at a housing finance agency more than two months after a government report determined she had created a toxic work environment and even retaliated against colleagues.
Staffers in the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Office of Inspector General told The Hill they are filled with frustration and anxiety as embattled Inspector General Laura Wertheimer remains in her position following an explosive report this spring by fellow government watchdogs who recommended disciplinary action that included firing the Obama appointee.
Several agency employees said they thought the multi-year investigation by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) would have prompted the White House to take action, particularly since Wertheimer was found to have gone after staffers who cooperated with a congressional oversight investigation.
But so far, Biden has not used his authority to remove Wertheimer from office.
“There were a lot of people who put their careers on the line for this and they expected better from government,” said a source familiar with the situation.
Current and former employees who spoke to The Hill asked that their names not be used, for fear of potential retribution like the kind described in April’s report.
The report detailed witness accounts of abuse and intimidation by Wertheimer and her inner circle against employees who they believed were “providing information to Congress and/or the Integrity Committee” that later submitted its findings to the White House.
The report cited targeted harassment, demeaning nicknames and weight-shaming that created a “chilling effect” within the office.
Sources who spoke to The Hill discussed examples of derogatory remarks that were included in the report, with one individual saying Wertheimer called an overweight employee “Baby Huey,” the large diaper-wearing, dimwitted cartoon duck.
“These people that she, in her mind, assumed were against her…the first thing she did was find a way to kick them out of her senior staff meetings. And then it was in those senior staff meetings and privately with individuals that she would call them names like Baby Huey,” said the source.
Wertheimer’s attorney, Emmet Flood, disputed that account when contacted for comment by The Hill.
“This accusation fits the prior pattern of false leaks from Congressional staff, and it too is untrue. Not only did Inspector General Wertheimer not call anyone by this name, the notion that she did is directly contradicted by the testimony of a witness given on the record in the underlying investigation. A pathetically false allegation,” Flood, a lawyer in the Trump White House who now works at Williams and Connolly LLP, said in a statement.
The CIGIE report also references Wertheimer making the Baby Huey comment, while noting that senior staff in her office denied hearing her make such remarks.
Calls for Wertheimer to be removed aren’t just coming from the inspector general community.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Ron Johnson (Wis.), the top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, respectively, are pressing Biden to use his executive powers to remove Wertheimer.
“CIGIE did their job. The buck stops at the President’s desk. I hope he will take action to remove and replace Ms. Wertheimer from her post soon, provided the White House follows the simple notice requirements provided in statute,” Grassley said in a statement.
Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, the president must notify both the House and the Senate no later than 30 days before the removal of an inspector general.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said there is “no question” that Wertheimer should be removed, adding that the situation has created “a real problem.”
“The table has been laid for the president to remove her,” Brian said.
The Supreme Court added a new wrinkle this week when justices struck down a restriction protecting the Federal Housing Finance Agency director from being fired for anything other than misconduct.
The White House later fired the Trump-era director, Mark Calabria, but it’s unclear whether that will have any immediate impact on Wertheimer.
Inspectors general have been thrust into the spotlight in recent years. Former President Trump came under bipartisan criticism for his removal of multiple inspectors general, including watchdogs at the State Department and in the U.S. intelligence community.
Biden, however, appears to be taking a much more hands-off approach, with critics arguing he has swung too far in the opposite direction.
The president has yet to fill key inspector general vacancies at nine different government agencies, including the Treasury Department, the Department of Education and the Pentagon, according to POGO’s Inspector General Vacancy Tracker.
The longest vacancy is at the Export-Import Bank, which has been unfilled for 2,552 days. Biden has yet to name a nominee.
Jason Foster, a former Grassley staffer who interviewed employees in the housing agency’s inspector general office before the CIGIE investigation, said in a statement that White House inaction against Wertheimer “is a disservice to the whistleblowers who spoke up years ago.”
Further, he said, it “undermines public confidence in the President’s willingness to enforce basic standards of professionalism and integrity in the [inspector general] community.”
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