DHS watchdog declined to pursue investigations into Secret Service during Trump administration, documents show

By: Carol D. Leonnig - Washington Post

The chief federal watchdog for the Secret Service blocked investigations proposed by career staff last year to scrutinize the agency’s handling of the George Floyd protests in Lafayette Square and the spread of the coronavirusin its ranks, according to documents and people with knowledge of his decisions.

Both matters involved decisions by then-President Donald Trump that may have affected actions by the agency.

Joseph Cuffari, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, rejected his staff’s recommendation to investigate what role the Secret Service played in the forcible clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square on June 1, according to internal documents and two people familiar with his decision, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions.

After the sudden charge by police on the largely peaceful protesters, the Secret Service was able to move Trump to a church at the edge of the park, where the White House staged a photo opportunity for the president

Cuffari also sought to limit — and then the office ultimately shelved — a probe into whether the Secret Service flouted federal protocols put in place to detect and reduce the spread of the coronavirus within its workforce, according to the records.

Hundreds of Secret Service officers were either infected with the coronavirus or had to quarantine after potential exposure last year as Trump continued to travel and hold campaign events during the pandemic.

DHS investigators argued that both investigations were essential to their office’s duty to hold the department and the Secret Service accountable, according to the people.

The Secret Service has declined to answer questions about the agency’s role in the Lafayette Square episode, though officials have stressed the clearing of protesters was under the direction of the U.S. Park Police.

The agency has also asserted that it followed best practices and federal protocols to try to contain the spread of coronovirus and prioritized the health of its employees.

Cuffari’s decisions not to pursue the probes were revealed in records obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, and shared with The Washington Post.

Staff argued that the coronavirus investigation should have been a high priority because of the health risks at stake, the people said. Internal DHS reports showed a spike in the number of Secret Service employees who tested positive for coronavirus last summer, a situation that potentially endangered their co-workers, senior government officials and even the president. Trump contracted the coronavirus in the fall, although it is unclear how he was infected.

The DHS inspector general’s office has not launched a probe specifically examining the Secret Service’s performance since the Obama administration.

Erica Paulson, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said in a statement that Cuffari prioritizes investigations based on a limited budget and greenlights those that target the highest risks and are likely to have the greatest impact.

“Our office does not have the resources to approve every oversight proposal,” she said. “We have less than 400 auditors and inspectors to cover the entire Department of Homeland Security, an agency with almost half a million employees and contractors. Like all IGs, we have to make tough strategic decisions about how to best use our resources for greatest impact across the Department.”

Paulson continued: “In both of these cases, we determined that resources would have a higher impact elsewhere.”

Staffers inside the inspector general’s office privately complained that Cuffari — a Trump nominee confirmed in 2019 who previously worked for two GOP governors in Arizona, Jan Brewer and Doug Ducey — at times appeared skittish about investigations that could potentially criticize the president’s policies or actions, according to the people with knowledge of discussions.

Paulson disputed that, noting that Cuffari launched probes that examined controversial polices of the Trump administration, including those of DHS detention facilities. Cuffari’s office reported last year on the Secret Service’s total spending for Trump’s 2018 visit to the Trump Turnberry Golf Course in Scotland, an audit requested by Congress and launched by Cuffari’s predecessor.

“Evidence that IG Cuffari does not shy away from politically sensitive topics can be found in numerous DHS OIG published reports, as well as ongoing projects,” Paulson said in her statement.

The revelation that he declined to approve the two proposed Secret Service investigations could fuel criticism that Cuffari provided weak oversight of the second-largest federal agency at a time when Trump frequently used the Department of Homeland Security to implement some of his most polarizing policies. The House Committee on Homeland Security, whose chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has raised alarm about what he considers Cuffari’s failure to conduct thorough investigations, has scheduled an oversight hearing Wednesday on the inspector general’s oversight.

“Cuffari pulled his punches on exactly the type of sensitive reviews his office was created to perform,” said Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at the Project On Government Oversight. “It doesn’t look like he’s an independent watchdog.”

Last summer, staff investigators in the inspector general’s office believed they had strong arguments for taking a close look at the Secret Service’s handling of both the Lafayette Square clearing and the agency’s coronavirus protocols.

Both issues had spurred intense criticism — the first for violating Americans’ right to protest and the second for potentially endangering workers’ lives and public health.

According to internal documents, Cuffari’s investigators submitted a draft plan on June 10 to investigate whether the Secret Service violated its use-of-force policies in the June 1 clearing of Lafayette Square, an abrupt move by law enforcement about 30 minutes before Trump marched through the park for a photo op. The staff noted that hundreds of protesters had been shot at with rubber bullets and sprayed with chemical irritants; 60 people had been injured.

Trump and his aides planned the walk across the park to project a look of strength and control over the city amid the civil unrest that followed Floyd’s death. The U.S. Park Police order that came about 6:30 pm to forcibly clear Lafayette Square shocked senior D.C. police officers and National Guard officers on the ground, they have said, because the protesters that Monday had been largely peaceful and did not pose an imminent threat.

But at a June 18 meeting to discuss possible new investigations, Cuffari said the office would not probe the Secret Service’s handling of the protests or clearing of the square, according to the two people familiar with the discussion. Instead, the inspector general suggested that Secret Service Director Jim Murray could look into the episode, they said.

Staff investigators were taken aback. Given that the Secret Service is the primary agency responsible for ensuring the president’s security for any movement he makes in public, the Secret Service’s agents and supervisors would have been directly involved in planning his walk across Lafayette Square.

Paulson said that the inspector general chose not to review the Secret Service’s role in Lafayette Square because he determined the U.S. Park Police played a larger role in the handling of the protests, which the Interior Department’s inspector general planned to scrutinize.

“DHS OIG closely coordinated with Justice and Interior OIGs, who were each planning reviews given the greater presence and participation of their agencies on that day,” she said in her statement.

Two months later, Cuffari moved to curtail another proposed inquiry related to the Secret Service.

At the time, routine internal reports on the numbers of new positive coronavirus cases among DHS employees showed the number of infections among Secret Service employees had risen quickly. On Aug. 10, a special review team submitted a proposal to investigate what steps the Secret Service was taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among its workers.

In an Aug. 13 meeting to consider proposed investigations, Cuffari questioned the level of risk involved that the office would be scrutinizing, according to the people familiar with the discussion.

Investigators told Cuffari that if Secret Service agents and officers were spreading the coronavirus, more of them could get sick and possibly die. It would also increase the risk of exposure for the people the Secret Service protected, including the president.

Cuffari told the team they should narrow the probe, and suggested only examining how the spread of the coronavirus affected the Secret Service’s investigative work rather than its protection assignments.

But coronavirus infections in the Secret Service were falling the hardest on agents and officers working protective roles, who were required to travel around the country to secure public rallies for Trump’s campaign.

Many Secret Service agents who worked near the president opted not to wear masks in the early days of the virus’s arrival in the United States. Some members of the president’s detail urged other agents not to wear masks when they helped secure sites for presidential trips, saying the president didn’t like to see them.

In the end, the investigation was shelved, according to records and the people familiar with the decision.

Paulson said the office has devoted significant resources to examining the handling of the pandemic inside DHS, especially in detention settings.

“COVID-19 was and is a significant risk for DHS and we have numerous investigations, inspections and audits that appropriately address those risks throughout DHS,” she said in her statement.

The reluctance by Cuffari to pursue the Secret Service probes came even as Democratic lawmakers were pushing his office to more aggressively investigate DHS.

In a July letter, the chairs of three House committees asked Cuffari and the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate Homeland Security actions both at Lafayette Square on June 1 and in Portland, Ore. The lawmakers argued federal officials didn’t have unfettered rights to chase off or arrest American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

“The legal basis for this use of force has never been explained,” they wrote of the Lafayette Square clearing. “The Administration’s insistence on deploying these forces over the objections of state and local authorities suggest that these tactics have little to do with public safety, but more to do with political gamesmanship.”

Cuffari’s office did launch a probe related to DHS personnel dispatched to protests in Portland. In November, the office issued an alert on a technical matter, finding that the Federal Protective Service did not properly designate its employees by name who were sent to protect federal property there.

In March of last year, Thompson, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he was deeply troubled by many failures and factual flaws in an investigation by Cuffari’s office of the death of an 8-year-old boy in U.S. custody after Customs and Border Patrol agents detained him and his father at the border.

Thompson said the report inaccurately stated the cause of the child’s death, left out key details about the detention facility’s delay in treating the child and failed to examine whether the policies at the facility were followed or sufficient to prevent such a tragedy.

Thompson said “the many critical shortcomings in the work of the OIG raise significant concerns about the thoroughness of the office’s reviews as well as the willingness of the office to conduct in-depth examinations of sensitive topics.”

The Post reported last year that the number of investigations conducted under Cuffari’s watch had plummeted, noting that lawmakers from both parties were concerned. At the time, Cuffari’s office was on pace to conduct 40 investigations and audits by the end of the fiscal year that ended in September 2020, the fewest in nearly two decades. That would have represented one-fourth the productivity of the office in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Productivity has increased markedly since then, according to the list of reports on the inspector general’s public website. The office completed 80 reports by the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

Panorama Hispano is the regional news and information newspaper for Hispanic and other diverse communities.

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