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Trump removes inspector general who was to oversee $2 trillion stimulus spending

President Donald Trump has removed the chairman of the federal panel Congress created to oversee his administration's management of the $2 trillion stimulus package passed last month.

Glenn Fine, who had been the acting Pentagon inspector general, was informed Monday that he was being replaced by Sean O'Donnell, currently the inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fine is a career official who had served as acting Pentagon inspector general for four years and three months. Before that he was inspector general at the Justice Department for 11 years.

The move, which was first reported by Politico, was criticized by some as another instance of the president chafing at independent oversight. On Friday, he notified Congress that he was removing Michael Atkinson as the inspector general of the intelligence community - a decision that Trump acknowledged was in response to Atkinson's having alerted lawmakers to the existence of a whistleblower complaint about the president's dealings with Ukraine. The matter ultimately led to Trump's impeachment.

"Mr. Fine is no longer on the pandemic response accountability committee," Defense Department spokeswoman Dwrena Allen said in a statement. He will, however, continue to serve in his current position of principal deputy inspector general at the Pentagon. He had until now held both the acting and deputy positions.

Because Fine is no longer acting inspector general, he is ineligible to hold the spending watchdog role.

On Monday, Trump nominated Jason Abend, senior policy adviser at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to be the permanent inspector general at the Defense Department.

The $2 trillion coronavirus emergency spending law, known as the Cares Act, created several layers of oversight, including a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is supposed to be overseen by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Late last month, a number of inspectors general selected Fine to serve as panel chairman.

The new law tasked the group to conduct and coordinate audits, with investigators looking for waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money that the law directed be spent on loans, loan guarantees, and financial payments to households and businesses.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she is creating a select committee of the House to scrutinize the Trump administration's implementation of the new law as well, though with the pandemic keeping members at home it is unclear when Congress might reconvene to establish the panel.

"President Trump has been engaged in an assault against independent Inspectors General since last Friday in order to undermine oversight of his chaotic and deficient response to the coronavirus crisis," said Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

His actions, she said, "are a direct insult to the American taxpayers - of all political stripes - who want to make sure that their tax dollars are not squandered on wasteful boondoggles, incompetence, or political favors."

Watchdog groups also expressed concern.

"It looks like the president right now is trying to exercise all of his authorities over inspectors general to show them that he is the boss - do things my way or you're fired," said Liz Hempowicz, public policy director at Project on Government Oversight. "That's simply not how inspectors general do the aggressive oversight work which will at some point require them to disagree with political leadership, either at the agency or at the White House. Especially right now it's crucial for inspectors general to remember that they work for American taxpayers, not the president."

Paul Rosenzweig, a Department of Homeland Security political appointee in the George W. Bush administration, criticized Trump's removal of Fine as "an affront to independence and oversight."

Said Rosenzweig: "Frankly, if the House of Representatives does not condition all further covid aid on the restriction of the president's removal authority, they will have made a mistake. They should realize that the president is no longer operating in any semblance of good faith and he is more dangerous to the fabric of American democracy than the virus."

Rosenzweig predicted that Trump may take aim next at the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, whose office on Monday released a survey of more than 300 hospitals across the country finding that the top complaint was a "severe" and "widespread" shortage of testing supplies and protective gear.

That finding contrasted with Trump's rosier assessment that the country had carried out more coronavirus testing than any other in the world - nearly 1.8 million tests to date. Trump seemed perturbed by reporters' questions asking him to square his remarks with the survey conducted by the HHS watchdog.

"So give me the name of the inspector general," he said. "Could politics be entered into that?

Christi Grimm, the agency's principal deputy inspector general since January, began working for the office of inspector general's office at HHS in 1999, according to the agency's website.

The CARES Act also created a special inspector general at the Treasury Department to oversee the spending of $500 billion of the stimulus package. Trump has signaled his intent to nominate White House lawyer Brian Miller to serve as the new special inspector general, whose work will be coordinated by the pandemic response accountability panel.

Miller, who was a General Services Administration inspector general in the Bush administration, gets good marks from watchdog groups, "though there is understandable skepticism about how independent he can be coming from the White House," Hempowicz said.

 

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