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Inspectors General

Inspectors General

by William H. Benson

July 20, 2020

On Saturday night, Oct. 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon instructed Attorney General, Elliot Richards, to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Elliot Richards though refused to comply with Nixon’s command, and instead he resigned.

Nixon then instructed Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox, but Ruckelshaus also refused to obey, and he resigned. Nixon then ordered Robert Bork, Solicitor General and the third-most-senior official at the Justice Department, to fire Cox. Bork wrote the letter to Cox that same night.

Critics pounced on Nixon’s abuse of power, in what is now called a “Saturday Night Massacre?”

Why had he acted in this high-handed manner? Days earlier, Cox had issued a subpoena to Nixon, requesting copies of taped conversations in the Oval Office, pertinent to Watergate, but Nixon had refused and instead decided to terminate Cox.

That same Saturday night Cox wrote a letter that an associate read to the press, saying, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people [to decide].”

In the aftermath of Watergate, during President Carter’s era, Congress passed a law designed to re-establish the American citizens’ trust in the Federal government’s employees. Called the “Inspector General Act of 1978,” the act created twelve Offices of Inspectors General (IG).

The act granted to each IG broad powers to investigate, detect, and prevent fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of government programs and operations, and expected each IG to act in a responsible manner, as a nonpartisan, independent, internal auditor, who works to uncover wrong-doing.

The numbers of IG’s has swelled over the past forty-two years, from an initial twelve to a current seventy-four. In alphabetic order, the list begins with the IG for the Agency for International Development and ends with the IG for the U.S. Postal Service.

The president appoints some IG’s, and the Senate confirms them, but for other IG’s, an agency head will appoint the IG. For example, the U. S. Postal Service Governors appoints the IG for the U.S. Postal Service, not the president.

The correct relationship between certain of the IG’s and the president remains vague.

When President Ronald Reagan took office in Jan. of 1981, he fired all fifteen IG’s. Congress objected, and Reagan relented. He retained five of the fifteen and appointed ten others. The first George Bush tried to do the same, but once Congress objected, he retained all of them.

Presidents since—Clinton, the second Bush, and Obama—have chosen to leave the IG’s alone. One exception. In 2009, President Barak Obama fired Gerald Walpin, IG for the Corporation for National and Community Service, claiming “a lack of confidence in Walpin.”

Imagine the surprise this spring, when President Trump terminated five IG’s in six weeks:

*On April 3, a Friday night, he fired Michael K. Atkinson, IG for the Intelligence Community.

*On April 7, he fired Glenn Fine, acting IG for the Department of Defense.

*On May 1, a Friday, at 8:00 p.m., he fired Christi Grimm, acting IG for the Department of Health & Human Services.

*On May 15, a Friday, at 10:00 p.m., he fired Steve Linick, IG for the Department of State.

*Also, on May 15, he fired Mitch Behm, acting IG for the Department of Transportation.

One wonders, “why on Friday night?” That is a low-profile time. People have gone home for the weekend, will deal with issues on Monday morning, and may adjust to the bad news by then.

Critics were swift to voice their concern over President Trump’s termination of five IG’s. Some pointed out that firing Michael K. Atkinson was blatant retaliation. He was “the one who shepherded the whistle-blower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.”

Mitch Romney, a Republican tweeted, “The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”

Boston Globe’s editor wrote, “Congress need not dig deep to discover that the president’s ousting of federal watchdogs reeks of political retribution.” His deeds “lay bare the White House’s intent to punish critics and silence dissent,” and “represent an unparalleled abuse of the power of the presidency.”

Walter M. Shaub, Jr., wrote in The New York Review of Books, in early May, that the tradition of a president leaving alone the IG’s, “is being tested as Trump seeks to gain control over these watchdogs.”

One wonders about all this. Who should a U.S. citizen trust or believe? Again, the Boston Globe’s editor wrote, “Leaders on Capitol Hill can force the president to stop exploiting the power of his office, at least when it comes to independent oversight. The rest will be up to voters in November.”