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Interior Department Clears Up Questions Over Inspector General Job


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been one of the most controversial members of President Trump's Cabinet. There are numerous investigations into his conduct as secretary. When the day began, there were reports that Zinke was planning to replace the independent watchdog leading some of those investigations. The department now says that's not happening. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It all started with an email from Housing Secretary Ben Carson telling HUD employees that Suzanne Israel Tufts, HUD's assistant secretary for administration, was leaving that agency to become acting inspector general at the Department of Interior. This came as a surprise to many in Washington, perhaps even to the current acting inspector general, Mary Kendall. For one thing, inspectors general are appointed by the president, and the White House hadn't announced anything. And Liz Hempowicz of the Project on Government Oversight says Tufts didn't have the experience that would qualify her to be an inspector general.

LIZ HEMPOWICZ: These individuals that lead these offices should be non-political. They should have oversight experience. They should have an investigative background that kind of primes and for this kind of watchdog role.

NAYLOR: Tufts is a former Trump campaign aide who was brought to HUD by Carson to replace the staffer who blew the whistle on Carson's plans to use taxpayer dollars to buy a $31,000 dining set. Zinke's ethics have also been questioned. The inspector general's office has been looking at, among other things, his redrawing of the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah to benefit a Trump ally. There are other investigations, says Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based conservation watchdog group.

CHRIS SAEGER: There's another that involves a real estate deal that Secretary Zinke's family foundation was potentially involved with in his home town that would have been financed in part by the chairman of Halliburton, which of course has a lot of business before the Department of Interior.

NAYLOR: But today, in a statement to NPR, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Carson's email had false information in it, that no decision was ever made to move Tufts to interior, that while she was referred to the department by the White House as a potential candidate for a job in the inspector general's office, quote, "at the end of the day, she was not offered a job at Interior." Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT COSTA SONG, "POND HOPPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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