Lawyers are leaving the DHS watchdog agency, sources say The Jan. 6 investigation has brought new attention to tumult at the watchdog agency for the Department of Homeland Security. Now its Inspector General is under fire from multiple directions.

DHS watchdog appointed by Trump has fueled an exodus of agency lawyers, sources say

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1127014951/1128522596" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The January 6 select committee holds its ninth hearing tomorrow. And as we wait to hear the panel's latest findings, we're learning more about someone who's accused of interfering with the investigation. Joseph Cuffari is the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. He was appointed by former President Donald Trump. Accusations that Cuffari was obstructing the investigation into the Capitol attack surfaced earlier this year. That prompted Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin to offer this assessment in August.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: This man has lost whatever credibility he may have once had on this matter.

PFEIFFER: Cuffari is now also under fire from members of his own workforce. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is here with us. And Claudia, you've spent time reporting on this man. What have you learned?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Right. Cuffari took over as the Department of Homeland Security inspector general in 2019, after he was appointed by then-President Trump. And Cuffari's still in that role today. He's a former Air Force officer who worked for the U.S. Justice Department, and he worked in political circles in Arizona. And now, as DHS inspector general, he's faced several controversies leading a workforce of about 750 employees.

I talked to seven sources recently who are familiar with the inner workings of the agency, and NPR has agreed to withhold their names for fear of professional retaliation. But they told me that Cuffari has fueled organizational dysfunction and abused his power.

PFEIFFER: Tell us more about that, about his sort of leadership style.

GRISALES: Right. We learned that dozens of watchdog lawyers have left under Cuffari's watch. So that's more than 30 attorneys in the agency's Office of Counsel, which sources said is a loss of institutional knowledge, and it hurts oversight of DHS. This is the third-largest government agency. It includes Customs and Border Protection and the Secret Service, among others. And as one source put it, the watchdog's leaders are, quote, "too cozy" with DHS officials. Sources also alleged the agency has tried to get some career staffers to sign nondisclosure agreements in what some worry is an attempt to block public scrutiny into investigations such as the January 6 probe.

And for the agency's part, they responded to these allegations by saying they cannot comment about matters tied to ongoing investigations. But in an emailed statement, they said Cuffari has made the inspector general's office a, quote, "model workplace with good worker relations."

PFEIFFER: Yet some of his workers have turned against him. There was a letter from anonymous workers asking Biden to fire Cuffari. What's the status of that?

GRISALES: Right. This letter detailed a broad range of concerns, including that Cuffari and top leaders have delayed critical investigations. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about this letter last month. Here's her response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: So we have heard about some of the issues with this particular inspector general, and we're going to take a look at those.

GRISALES: But the White House has not provided an update since. Now, we should note that Biden frequently slammed Trump for firing several watchdogs in 2020. And Biden has touted in several speeches, including a State of the Union address earlier this year that, quote, "the watchdogs are back," especially when it comes to oversight of pandemic relief funds. But he's facing increasing pressure to step in, at least in this case involving Cuffari.

PFEIFFER: And how does the January 6 investigation factor into these concerns?

GRISALES: Yes. In July, Cuffari alerted Congress that Secret Service had deleted text messages around the time of the attack. But later, congressional investigators learned Cuffari had known about this for months. I talked to January 6 Chairman Bennie Thompson soon after those revelations.

BENNIE THOMPSON: It appears that the IG is potentially at issue with the conduct of his investigation.

GRISALES: Two sources told me that this omission marked a culmination of months of Cuffari and other top leaders at the watchdog agency interfering with their own career staffers' internal investigation of the probe; in some cases, even letting DHS officials edit watchdog requests for Secret Service materials. Now, members such as Thompson and House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, they're weighing next steps as Cuffari's no longer cooperating with their requests. A congressional source tells me the Justice Department also received a request from Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin to take over Cuffari's criminal probe into these missing Secret Service records. However, that source said DOJ declined to talk about where that stands.

PFEIFFER: And Claudia, very briefly, what's next for this agency?

GRISALES: Well, all eyes are on Biden and these congressional members. That said, these worries continue for career staffers, where sources say these workers just want to do their jobs, and right now they cannot.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thank you.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.