WASHINGTON (CN) – A policy adviser for Arizona’s Republican governor will likely soon take the reins as inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security and while he sailed through his nomination hearing Tuesday without problems, he will face no shortage of them if confirmed.
Joseph Cuffari, tapped by President Donald Trump last year, will replace acting Inspector General John V. Kelly, assuming he can secure enough votes in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Over 35 years, Cuffari has worked in the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the Department of Defense Inspector General Office and the Justice Department. He currently serves as military and veteran affairs policy adviser to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.
The inspector general’s office at the Department of Homeland Security has remained without a permanent head for over a year and Cuffari, who was buttressed with glowing praise from Republican members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday afternoon, is all but certain to be confirmed.
The responsibility of oversight expected to be passed from Kelly to Cuffari is challenging and sweeping: the department is the third largest federal agency in the U.S., employs over 245,000 people and operates on a budget of $75 billion.
Recruitment shortfalls, low morale and insufficient management at various branches within Homeland Security have plagued the agency for years and that trend will likely continue if the department does not get its priorities in order and its officials in compliance, the committee warned Cuffari.
“It’s very important that inspector generals are not captured by the agency,” Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said. “You become vested
[in the department]
and want to see it succeed, so it can be very difficult at some point to air the dirty laundry.”
And air the dirty laundry he must, ranking member Gary Peters, D-Mich., agreed.
“As inspector general, there will be times when you have to push back against top officials…we rely on the inspector general to evaluate the department’s performance on its most critical commitments,” Peters said.
Kelly, who was appointed deputy inspector general during the Obama administration, has pushed back against Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen several times since he was appointed as acting inspector general by President Trump in December 2017.
Just last month, the Obama-era holdover issued a scathing report on the Homeland Security Department offshoot U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The agency failed to uphold even the most basic standards of care for those families and children detained at an immigration facility in New Jersey, the report found.
Mishandled food, dilapidated living quarters, pervasive mold and worse prompted the report by Kelly to Nielsen.
Oversight of those violations will likely soon become Cuffari’s domain in addition to other pressing ethical and human rights concerns like violations the inspector general’s office found unfolding at various ICE facilities throughout the U.S.
According to a report from January, ICE turned a blind eye to facilities with “deficient conditions” from 2015 to 2018 and avoided imposing financial penalties on offending facilities by issuing waivers. In fact, penalties were only rolled out twice in three years, the inspector general found. ICE disagreed with those findings.
Cuffari faces another ethics issue if confirmed: last month, the inspector general recommended Nielsen punish Christine Ciccone, the department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, after whistleblowers notified Congress she retaliated against State Department officials before leaving her post as deputy chief of staff there.
Cuffari told senators Tuesday that if confirmed, he would have a “professional” relationship with Nielsen and vowed to follow the “letter of the law.”
Under the Inspector General Act, inspectors must report any flagrant abuse or deficiencies existing in department programs to Congress. They are also obligated to go over a secretary’s head to report their findings if they are told to keep their review quiet.
Pushing for a more rigorous review of the fallout from immigrant family separations that happened under the administration’s directive, Senator Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., pressed Cuffari for his thoughts on the policy and how he would interact with his would-be superior, Nielsen, who has defended it.
“Do you think this policy was particularly flagrant or abusive or that it impacted public safety or operations at DHS?” Rosen said.
Leaning on his years of experience in oversight and investigation, Cuffari told the senator he would have to “look at the all facts” first but would report any problems to Congress, no matter what he was told by the secretary.