October 17, 2018

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has told his staff that Suzanne Israel Tufts, a political appointee at HUD, has been named acting inspector general of the Interior Department. The role of internal watchdog at federal agencies is traditionally nonpartisan, and the Interior Department's inspector general's office has several investigations ongoing into conduct by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, making the installation of a political appointee all the more unusual, The Washington Post reports.

That's not the only strange thing about Tufts' apparent appointment. The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General said it "has received no official communication about any leadership changes," and an Interior Department spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort, referred questions to the White House, noting that the inspector general "is a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed position, which would be announced by the White House." The White House has not announced Tufts' nomination and did not respond to the Post's request for comment. A HUD spokesman said Tufts was on temporary loan to Interior, but Carson described her departure as permanent.

Tufts is a lawyer from Queens with no experience in government oversight; when she was hired at HUD, she replaced a career official who had objected to Carson's costly office makeover, the Post reports. The current acting Interior inspector general, Mary Kendall, is a longtime government lawyer who has served as deputy inspector general since 1999. She took over as acting inspector general in 2009; President Barack Obama nominated her to serve as inspector general but the Senate never voted on it.

Kendall's investigations of Zinke include a Montana land-investment deal involving the chairman of Halliburton and a foundation tied to Zinke and his wife, Lola; Lola Zinke's government travel with her husband; a casino project blocked after Zinke met with MGM Resorts International lobbyists; and whether the shrunken boundaries for Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were drawn to benefit a Utah Republican state lawmaker. Peter Weber

June 18, 2018

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told the Office of Government Ethics that he had divested from foreign companies, then kept his holdings for months, a Forbes investigation published Monday found.

Ross kept his stakes in a company co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm linked to the Kremlin, and a Cyprus bank that is entangled in the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He pledged to rid himself of all possible conflicts of interest, but he and his family continued to do business with foreign companies affected by Ross' decisions as a government official.

After Forbes contacted him asking about his holdings, Ross said through a spokesperson that his financial disclosures would soon more accurately reflect his holdings. Soon after Ross learned that damaging stories would be published in the fall, the commerce secretary shorted stock in the Kremlin-linked company, setting himself up for more profit.

"The secretary did not lie," said the spokesperson, emphasizing that Ross did eventually divest. However, Forbes reports that Ross may have broken one policy by misrepresenting his finances in a sworn statement. He has reportedly amended that statement since then. Read more about Ross' tangled financial web at Forbes. Summer Meza

June 2, 2018

J. Steven Hart, the energy lobbyist whose wife charged Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt below-market rent on a Washington condo she co-owned, lobbied the EPA for three clients in 2017, his former firm has disclosed.

When the condo story broke, Hart said he "do[es] not lobby the EPA" and had "no lobbying contact with the EPA in 2017 or 2018." Pruitt likewise said Hart had "no clients who have business before this agency." The new disclosures, first reported by The Hill Friday evening, indicate those claims were not accurate.

Hart was previously known to have arranged a meeting between Pruitt and an executive of one of the three clients, Smithfield Foods. However, Hart claimed the meeting should not be considered lobbying because the executive was acting as a representative of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a Maryland environmental agency, and not on Smithfield's behalf. However, the new disclosures show Hart did additional work with the EPA for Smithfield and also lobbied the agency for two previously unknown clients, Coca-Cola and the Financial Oversight and Management Control Board of Puerto Rico.

Hart did not respond Friday to requests for comment from multiple media outlets. He resigned from the lobbying firm that made the disclosures, Williams & Jensen, in April. Bonnie Kristian

May 14, 2018

The White House apparently believes that if government officials aren't with President Trump, they're against him.

The Trump administration values loyalty above nearly anything else, The New Yorker reported Monday, draining the proverbial "swamp" by refilling it with employees who pledge allegiance to the president.

White House officials sought to fill empty posts, but refused to consider anyone who had opposed Trump during the 2016 election, a foreign affairs official who served under the Reagan and Bush administrations said. Trump and his allies welcome employee departures, preferring to rid themselves of any "obstructionist" who might "subvert" the president's agenda.

Agency heads, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, demand loyalty as well. Employees of the Bureau of Land Management were asked to wear "vision card" badges, and one staffer said neglecting to wear the badge could mark someone as insufficiently "loyal to the flag," the magazine reported.

Employees who are seemingly demoted for their lack of devotion to the administration often complain, but the board entrusted with handling complaints has been effectively shuttered since Trump took office. Without the board, the administration has been able to bury potentially damaging information, reports The New Yorker. Officials reported "a concerted effort" to hide evidence of misconduct or corruption, saying the administration is "deliberately avoiding creating records." Read more at The New Yorker. Summer Meza

April 25, 2018

Don Blankenship, the Republican candidate for Senate in West Virginia, may want to update his outdated vocabulary.

While speaking to a West Virginia radio show Monday, Blankenship referred to the father of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao as "a wealthy Chinaperson." The comment came as Blankenship has been facing fierce opposition from Republican establishment leaders who want to see a more traditional GOP candidate in West Virginia, reports The New York Times including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao's husband.

Blankenship, a former coal mining executive, spent a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety standards and is still on parole. He has been the subject of attack ads paid for by a super PAC that backs McConnell that emphasize that Blankenship is a "convicted criminal" and accuse him of purposefully pumping coal slurry into local drinking water.

In response to the segments, Blankenship told the radio show that McConnell had conflicts of interest because of his marriage to Chao. Chao's father is "a wealthy Chinaperson," Blankenship said, per the Times, adding that McConnell is "soft on China" because of his connections there.

Blankenship himself has considered seeking citizenship in China — a country he said is successful because of "dictatorial capitalism" — and once started a business to import generators from China. He stopped running the trade company when he was sentenced to prison, however. Blankenship's own ads describe his sentencing as an unfair and overblown misunderstanding, caused by an "Obama judge" and team of "Obama prosecutors" who wanted to bring him down because of their hatred of the coal industry.

Read more at The New York Times. Summer Meza

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