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Steve Linick: Fired State Department inspector general was cleared in leak inquiry prior to his removal, sources say

CNN logo CNN 5/29/2020 By Kylie Atwood, CNN
a man wearing a suit and tie © Win McNamee/Getty Images

Administration officials said President Donald Trump fired the State Department's inspector general this month because his office was suspected of leaking to the media -- but an independent investigation earlier this year found Steve Linick and his office had done no such thing.

An investigation by the Pentagon inspector general found no evidence that Linick or anyone in his office shared information with the media about a probe into the State Department, two sources familiar with the investigation told CNN, despite claims by an official close to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republicans that there had been leaks from Linick's office. Last week Trump suggested that Linick had "problems" with the Defense Department.

Trump removed Linick at Pompeo's recommendation in a late night firing while attention was focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Linick is the fifth inspector general Trump has replaced since he was acquitted of impeachment charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, in what critics see as an effort by the President to remove independent oversight.

Brian Bulatao, the State Department's Undersecretary for Management, told The Washington Post last week that concerns about Linick had grown because of a "pattern of unauthorized disclosures, or leaks."

Republican members of Congress also said the State Department told them that leaks had been coming out of Linick's office.

"I think they thought his office was leaking stuff and lost trust in him. That's what I've been told by the State Department," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican close to Trump, told CNN.

The State Department did not provide examples of any leaks from Linick or the inspector general's office, when asked by CNN.

There are also questions about what Pompeo told Trump about the Pentagon IG investigation when he asked the him to fire Linick. The White House and the State Department did not provide details.

Trump appeared to reference the investigation last week when he answered questions about Linick's ouster.

"I don't know him at all," Trump said of Linick, noting that he had been asked to fire him by Pompeo. "He is an Obama employee. He had a lot of problems with the DOD. There was investigation on him, on the Inspector General."

Pompeo defended his recommendation to oust the independent watchdog and pointed to mounting tension with Linick when he told reporters last week that he should have pushed for him to be fired "some time ago."

When pressed to explain why he lobbied to have Linick fired, Pompeo refused to elaborate, saying only that he would "share with the appropriate people."

The report of the full Pentagon investigation was not shared with the State Department though its findings were verbally communicated, according to a US government official. That created friction between Linick's office and some State Department officials.

Linick's firing drew immediate condemnation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who accused the President of engaging in a pattern of retaliation against public servants charged with oversight of his administration.

Linick, whose office is charged with investigating waste, fraud and abuse at the State Department, had been investigating allegations that Pompeo used a political appointee for personal tasks such as dog walking and making restaurant reservations.

He was also reportedly looking into whether Pompeo broke rules when he declared an emergency last year that allowed the administration to fast track an $8 billion arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their war in Yemen over congressional objections.

Pompeo demanded leak investigation

Pompeo demanded the Pentagon watchdog investigation after a story from The Daily Beast revealed the recommendations of a State Department inspector general investigation into alleged political retaliation within the department by a top official, Brian Hook.

Pompeo was fuming when the report surfaced and called Linick up to his office where he demanded an investigation into the leak, which he believed may have come from the IG's office, according to a source familiar with the interaction. Linick explained how the potential leak could be investigated -- saying that an outside IG could perform the investigation of the State Department Inspector General's office. Pompeo agreed to that course of action, according to the source.

Linick went to the Pentagon, Veteran Affairs and Labor Department inspector general's office and was told the Pentagon IG had the bandwidth to investigate, according to a source close to Linick.

Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon IG, declined to comment.

Linick shared the investigation's finding that cleared his office with the State Department in March, about two months before he was fired, the sources said.

The full DOD IG report, however, was not given to the State Department, the US government official told CNN. Linick did not present it when asked, after he verbally told the department that it did not find any wrongdoing, the official said.

Additionally, Linick's decision to refer the investigation to another IG on his own angered some within the State Department.

Then Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan ordered Linick refer the leak investigation to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which oversees the workforce in the offices of the Inspectors General, and he did not do so, said the USG government official. The source added that the State IG reports to the secretary, or if deferred to deputy secretary.

Bulatao detailed the department's frustration when speaking to The Washington Post.

"Our understanding is he picked another fed agency on his own, to pick the person he wanted to grade his own homework, which sets up a whole apparent conflict of interest," Bulatao said.

Linick did not take the request for an investigation to CIGIE because CIGIE's investigative arm, its integrity committee, looks into complaints regarding specific individuals at IG offices, not into those offices as a whole, explained the source close to Linick. The remit of CIGIE's investigative arm, its integrity committee, is also laid out on its website.

It is unclear why Linick did not alert CIGIE to the request for the investigation from Pompeo, which sources said could have been an appropriate step even if the investigation was not going to fall into their lap. It is also unclear why Pompeo's team did not file a request that CIGIE investigate, something anyone can do, sources familiar with the process explained.

At the same time the Pentagon IG was conducting its investigation, Linick's office launched an inquiry of its own into whether the leak came from elsewhere in the State Department.

That investigation's findings are still pending as it did not reach a precise conclusion about the origins of the leak, according to a source familiar. It found that a senior State Department official had forwarded an email with the details of the IG's recommendations on Hook to his wife, but it did not conclude whether that email was linked to the leak to the media.

Through a spokesperson, Molly Levinson, Linick declined to discuss the findings of the OIG investigation. The State Department OIG also declined to comment.

To date, the State Department has provided no evidence of any leaks coming from Linick's office.

Linick's replacement to be read into Pompeo investigations soon

Linick's replacement as Inspector General, Stephen Akard, is expected to review the investigations into actions taken by Pompeo in the coming days, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Akard began his duties last week, the Monday morning after Linick was abruptly fired. He was not immediately read into investigations -- in large part because Akard still holds another position at State as the head of the Office of Foreign Missions, which has required any conflict of interest to be worked through before Akard is read into the Pompeo investigations, the source familiar explained.

Akard's ties to Vice President Mike Pence, which date back to when he worked under then-Indiana Gov. Pence as the head of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, have rankled former diplomats who see him as a part of the politicization of the State Department.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are fearful that Akard could seek to put an end to the investigations into Pompeo, explained two congressional aides.

"That is the million-dollar question," said one of the sources referring to questions about what happens to the investigations focusing on alleged misconduct by Pompeo.

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