Ousted State watchdog confirms investigations into Pompeo

Steve Linick

FILE – In this Oct. 2, 2019, file photo State Department Inspector General Steve Linick leaves a meeting in a secure area at the Capitol in Washington. Linick irritated powerful Democrats and Republicans alike in his seven years as the independent watchdog investigating waste and mismanagement at the State Department. Still, he was stunned by a Friday night phone call saying President Donald Trump had fired him. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Ousted State Department Inspector General Steve Linick on Wednesday told members of three congressional committees that before he was abruptly fired, he was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s treatment of staffers as well as the secretary’s decision to approve a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Democrats are investigating President Donald Trump’s firing of Linick — one of several inspector generals he has recently ousted — and whether it was a retaliatory move. Pompeo has said he recommended that the inspector general be terminated, but insisted it wasn’t retribution. Linick was an Obama administration appointee whose office had been critical of what it saw as political bias in the State Department’s current management, but had also taken issue with Democratic appointees.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement that they still have many unanswered questions about the firing.

“Mr. Linick confirmed that at the time he was removed as IG, his office was looking into two matters that directly touched on Secretary Pompeo’s conduct and that senior State Department officials were aware of his investigations,” the three Democrats said.

Their statement said Linick confirmed there was an ongoing investigation into “allegations of misuse of government resources by Secretary Pompeo and his wife.” Linick said he had informed officials close to Pompeo of the investigation, including by requesting documents from his personal secretary, the Democrats said.

Pompeo, though, has told reporters he was unaware of any investigation into allegations that he may have mistreated staffers by instructing them to run personal errands for him and his wife — such as walking his dog and picking up dry cleaning and takeout food. Thus, Pompeo said, the move could not have been retaliatory.

Pompeo did acknowledge he was aware of the probe into his decision last year to bypass congressional objections to approve a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia because he had answered written questions about it posed by Linick’s office. But he maintained he did not know the scope or scale of the investigation.

Linick confirmed that probe as well, and told the investigators his office had requested an interview with Pompeo but his secretary had refused. The Democrats said Linick testified he had been pressured by some close to Pompeo, including Brian Bulatao, an undersecretary of State who is an old friend of the secretary.

“Mr. Linick testified that Mr. Bulatao pressured him to act in ways that Mr. Linick felt were inappropriate — including Bulatao telling Linick that the investigation into weapons sales to Saudi Arabia was not a matter for the IG to investigate,” the committees said.

Republicans questioned Linick on whether he had leaked information about sensitive investigations, which the administration has hinted played a part in his dismissal. In a letter to Engel this week, Bulato wrote that “concern over Linick had grown” concerning the handling of an investigation that was leaked in the media and later reviewed.

The Democrats said Linick rejected that explanation, saying it was “either misplaced or unfounded.”

In his opening statement, released before the interview and obtained by The Associated Press, Linick said he has “served without regard to politics” in his nearly three-decade career in public service and has always been committed to independent oversight.

Pompeo said after the firing that he had been concerned about the inspector general’s work for some time and that he regretted not calling for his dismissal earlier.

The investigation is part of a larger effort by Democrats and some Republicans to find out more about Trump’s recent moves to sideline several independent government watchdogs. Engel and Menendez have been demanding answers and documents from the State Department on other matters for months, to little avail, and are now teaming up to try to force a complete explanation from Pompeo and the White House as to why Trump fired Linick. Engel and Menendez earlier demanded that administration officials preserve and turn over all records related to Linick’s dismissal. They said they have received no information so far.

The committee has asked several other State Department officials to sit for interviews in the probe, including Bulatao, Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, Pompeo’s executive secretary Lisa Kenna and acting State Department legal adviser Marik String, according to the congressional aides. The committees said they will release transcripts shortly after each interview.

Democrats and some Republicans have pushed the administration for more answers about the firings, but the White House has provided few, simply stating the dismissals were well within Trump’s authority.

Linick played a small role in Trump’s impeachment last year, an involvement that has added fuel to Democratic suspicions of retaliation. In October, Linick turned over documents to House investigators that he had received from a close Pompeo associate that contained information from debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. election. Democrats were probing Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate his political opponents.

He is the second inspector general to be fired who was involved with the impeachment process. Michael Atkinson, the former inspector general for the intelligence community, triggered the impeachment probe when he alerted Congress about a whistleblower complaint that described a call between Trump and Ukraine’s president last summer. Trump fired Atkinson in April, saying he had lost confidence in him.

The president also moved to replace the chief watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who testified that her office was moving ahead with new reports and audits on the department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic despite Trump’s public criticism of her.

In addition, Trump demoted acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, effectively removing him as head of a special board to oversee auditing of the coronavirus economic relief package. Fine later resigned.

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