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Democrats call for probe into State Department watchdog's ouster

The Hill logo The Hill 5/16/2020 Jesse Byrnes
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Democratic lawmakers say they are planning to look into the ouster of the State Department's inspector general on Friday, the latest federal watchdog to be removed by the Trump administration.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) blasted the decision to remove inspector general Steve Linick, asserting it was an "outrageous" attempt by President Trump to shield Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from scrutiny.

"I have learned that the Office of the Inspector General had opened an investigation into Secretary Pompeo. Mr. Linick's firing amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation," Engel said in a statement.

"This President believes he is above the law. As he systematically removes the official independent watchdogs from the Executive Branch, the work of the Committee on Foreign Affairs becomes that much more critical. In the days ahead, I will be looking into this matter in greater detail, and I will press the State Department for answers," he added.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) echoed the call for further review, tweeting that "[i]f Inspector General Linick was fired because he was conducting an investigation of conduct by Secretary Pompeo, the Senate cannot let this stand. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee must get to bottom of what happened here."

The State Department said Friday that Ambassador Stephen Akard, a former career Foreign Service officer, would replace Linick, who was appointed to the post in 2013 by then-President Obama and is one of a number of watchdogs recently replaced by the Trump administration.

Linick previously worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney in California and Virginia before joining the Justice Department to oversee its National Procurement Fraud Task Force as well as serve as deputy chief of its fraud section.

"On Sept. 11, 2019, Ambassador Akard was confirmed by the Senate, 90-2, to lead the Department's Office of Foreign Missions and we look forward to him leading the Office of the Inspector General," a State Department spokesperson told The Hill on Friday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that the removal of Linick underscored what she called a "dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people."

"Inspector General Linick was punished for honorably performing his duty to protect the Constitution and our national security, as required by the law and by his oath," she said, adding that the move "will set back the important work of the Office of the Inspector General to perform critical audits, investigations and inspections of U.S. embassies and programs around the world" during the coronavirus crisis.

"The President must cease his pattern of reprisal and retaliation against the public servants who are working to keep Americans safe, particularly during this time of global emergency."

Multiple other House Democrats blasted the move:

Trump said in a letter to Pelosi on Friday notifying congressional leaders of the decision to remove Linick that he "no longer" had the "fullest confidence" in the inspector general, with the removal set to take effect in 30 days.

The State Department watchdog played a more minor role in the impeachment proceedings last year after he requested an urgent briefing with lawmakers in October to turn over documents he had obtained. The documents came in part from Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with Democrats saying they were passed along by the secretary of State and contained a number of false statements.

The president has moved in recent weeks to replace a number of inspectors general throughout the administration, including Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who was the first to alert Congress in 2019 of an "urgent" whistleblower complaint obtained by his office regarding Trump's dealings with Ukraine, the subject of impeachment.

Atkinson blasted his removal in early April, saying he believed he was ousted for carrying out his "legal obligations."

Trump last month also replaced acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine a week after he was tapped to lead a committee charged with overseeing $2 trillion in coronavirus relief.

And Trump has moved this month to replace the Department of Health and Human Services's inspector general following blistering criticism from the president after the current watchdog reported medical shortages at hospitals amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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