Joseph Cuffari’s tenure as the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been riddled with decisions that show a clear pattern of unwillingness or inability to meet the mission of his office. That is why the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) was calling for his removal months before recent reporting revealed that he did not notify Congress when his office first confirmed that Secret Service and other DHS text messages of interest to those investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol were missing.
Cuffari’s shortcomings as an inspector general were clear long before they landed him in the middle of one of the most high-profile investigations of our time. These failures find Cuffari now under scrutiny from the White House, Congress, and the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, and are why we at POGO recently reiterated our call on President Joe Biden to remove Cuffari from his position leading the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG).
The necessary statutory context here is that the Inspector General Act set up these independent agency watchdog offices for three clear purposes: (1) to audit and investigate agency programs and operations, (2) to produce objective recommendations to improve the administration of those programs with an eye towards preventing fraud and abuse, and (3) to keep the head of the agency and Congress “fully and currently” informed about problems in agency programs and operations.
This mission takes on even more importance at an agency like DHS, where the expansive mission and large size of the agency give it outsized potential to affect civil liberties. Keep this front of mind in the review that follows here of key moments in Cuffari’s three years leading the DHS OIG. It is also worth noting that, though Cuffari is a Trump appointee, it would of course have been out of the norm and ill-advised for Biden to remove Cuffari for that reason alone.
In April 2021, POGO revealed that Cuffari had rejected a proposal for the office to investigate the Secret Service’s controversial use of force against peaceful protestors assembled at Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square in June 2020. The use of force left protestors and journalists injured and prompted widespread backlash. Video footage shows Secret Service officers charging at the protestors, and the agency eventually admitted to using pepper spray after initially denying it.
Despite all this, Cuffari reportedly advised that the Secret Service itself was better positioned to conduct such an investigation. Furthermore, a spokesperson for Cuffari’s office suggested that the decision not to investigate the Secret Service was immaterial because the inspectors general at both the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice were doing related reviews of their own agencies’ involvement and use of force at Lafayette Square. This decision abdicated the responsibility of the DHS OIG to make systemic recommendations to improve agency operations going forward, as neither of the other agency OIGs had authority to conduct a full review of the Secret Service’s actions or issue those recommendations to DHS.
Cuffari also rejected a second proposal from career staff to examine the Secret Service, focused on the agency’s policies related to COVID-19. Any such review likely would have attracted the ire of then-President Donald Trump, who had come under repeated criticism for his contact with Secret Service agents while still contagious with COVID-19. This reticence to aggressively examine the Secret Service’s handling of visible and political issues has taken on new light in recent weeks.
A Whistleblower Disclosure
In July 2021, we reported on a previously non-public memo from the former head of whistleblower protection at the DHS OIG, Brian Volsky, to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s Integrity Committee alleging that Cuffari and his top aides had mishandled serious allegations of wrongdoing within DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, made by Brian Murphy, DHS’s former top intelligence officials. Murphy’s disclosure asserted that agency leadership was manipulating intelligence to present a distorted picture of domestic terrorism threats to support the Trump administration’s preferred narrative.
Volsky’s complaint against Cuffari details how the IG and his top aides slow-walked the approval of the investigation of these allegations and proactively impeded investigators once underway, wasting critical time, aware that many of the individuals relevant to the investigation would soon be leaving government and stepping beyond the reach of OIG investigators. As we first wrote in July 2021, Cuffari’s involvement in this investigation “shielded” the department’s then-acting Secretary Chad Wolf and then-acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli “from robust questioning about their alleged attempts to manipulate intelligence products.” This alone is a significant betrayal of the mission of his office, to conduct rigorous and apolitical oversight over agency programs and operations.
In February 2022, we confirmed that POGO wasn’t the only watchdog keeping a close eye on Cuffari’s work. The Integrity Committee was investigating allegations that Cuffari retaliated against employees in his office for making protected whistleblower disclosures. The Integrity Committee’s investigative process is known for its opacity, even after investigations conclude. For now, it’s important to keep in mind that the OIG is required to educate agency employees and managers on whistleblower protections, so it is critical that the head of the office show a clear understanding of those protections himself.
A few months later, in April 2022, POGO’s investigative team published documents that showed Cuffari directed OIG staff to remove details from a report about failures in agency processes that allowed, in 30 cases, DHS law enforcement agents to carry government-issued guns even though the department had substantiated charges that those agents violently abused their domestic partners. (As a relevant aside, research shows that people who carry out domestic abuse and have access to firearms are five times more likely to kill a female victim.) Cuffari suggested that he directed these omissions because he wasn’t interested in “second guessing DHS disciplinary decisions without full facts,” despite the statutory charge that he second guess agencies policies and processes at issue in the report.
In that same reporting, POGO revealed the existence of a draft report and an unpublished survey in which more than 10,000 DHS employees — more than one-third of the respondents — recorded experiencing sexual harassment or misconduct in the workplace. Cuffari didn’t share the results of the survey with agency leadership or Congress until a month after our original story ran. Despite the gobsmacking dereliction of duty demonstrated by Cuffari in these examples, the coverage of his failings alerted DHS agency leadership to the information Cuffari had worked to keep out of the spotlight. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responded with an effort to reform the agency’s discipline process, highlighting the valuable role the IG is supposed to play in facilitating these kinds of systemic agency changes. Indeed, this potential to drive change is part of the reason IGs have a mandate to inform agency leaders and Congress of “serious problems, abuses, and deficiencies relating to the administration of programs and operations” at their agencies.
Here, Cuffari fell short of his office’s mission in a critical way. He did not appreciate the severity of “intolerable levels of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at DHS,” and, in so doing, failed to meet his obligation to report to agency leadership and to Congress. His actions contributed to the very culture his office exists to combat — one where federal employees don’t report serious wrongdoing within their agencies because they fear the retaliation they know will come with it.
A Flurry of Congressional Oversight
The horrific details from our reporting kicked off a flurry of oversight that included staff briefings and a public, bipartisan inquiry by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cuffari maintains that his decisions were above reproach and consistent with his statutory responsibilities.
Amid this ongoing scrutiny for burying information about misconduct within DHS components, Cuffari notified Congress that the OIG had become aware of missing Secret Service text messages from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021. What Cuffari’s letter to Congress left out was that he first learned the messages were unavailable in May 2021, and the Secret Service confirmed to the OIG that they were permanently deleted in February 2022, five months before Cuffari let Congress know.
It is unclear if Cuffari’s briefings to Congress included explanations as to why he overruled a proposed effort to try to retrieve the text messages after initially learning about their deletion. To his credit, Cuffari informed Mayorkas about the issues his office was running into obtaining the missing text messages. But a capable inspector general understands that his mission is not just to keep his agency leader informed, but to keep Congress meaningfully and currently informed of serious issues.
There can be no question that these text messages are relevant to ongoing congressional investigations, in addition to the OIG’s own investigation. Later POGO reporting confirmed that Cuffari’s office was aware that there were other missing text messages potentially relevant to January 6th investigations, from phones that belonged to Wolf and Cuccinelli.
It’s no surprise that this inexplicable delay in notification has led some members of Congress to lose confidence in the inspector general, while others expressed a healthy dose of skepticism towards Cuffari’s decision-making. A clear pattern appears when you take a step back to appreciate these examples together: Cuffari has repeatedly failed to meet the objectives of his position. The duties of an inspector general are complex, but they are not so complicated as to explain why Cuffari still can’t seem to get it right. And while it may be tempting for President Biden to take a light touch and let the inspector general community police their own through the Integrity Committee process, there is a real danger in tacitly approving inferior performance from agency watchdogs and inviting more of the same in the future.