Watchdogs to Biden: Discipline "Up to and Including Removal" is Warranted for Fellow IG—Finally
Public Validation after a Five-Year Ordeal for Whistleblowers at the FHFA Inspector General's Office comes in an IG Integrity Committee Report and in a Letter from Senators Grassley and Johnson
Who watches the watchdogs? When it comes to independent inspectors general (IGs) in federal agencies, it’s something called the Integrity Committee—a self-policing body consisting of other IGs. Two weeks ago, the Integrity Committee wrote to President Joe Biden with a very rare recommendation, according to a letter released today by Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).
The Integrity Committee (IC) found misconduct by one of their fellow IGs that, “warrants consideration of substantial disciplinary action, up to and including removal.”
IG’s tend to be deferential to one another and fiercely protect their independence. So, a letter to the President raising the prospect of firing one of their own is remarkable.
The IG in question is the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA) Inspector General Laura Wertheimer. Nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2014, she served as only the second Inspector General of the relatively new federal agency, which became the conservator for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after the financial crisis of 2008.
Who was the first FHFA IG? That was Steve Linick, who was later removed as the Department of State’s Inspector General by President Trump, but without independent findings from the Integrity Committee like these against Wertheimer.
I personally interviewed several of the whistleblowers who reported IG Wertheimer’s misconduct to Congress beginning in 2015, when I worked for Senator Grassley. Their stories were compelling and disturbing. These new findings of the Integrity Committee are as well. The IC found that:
she “violated the Privacy Act” by improperly disclosing details of an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint,
she “sought to identify the complainant(s) … disparaged and demeaned staff members whom she believes complained or cooperated” with various inquiries,
her assistant inspector general “threatened to retaliate against OIG employees who complained to Senator Grassley’s office by stating that she would make criminal complaints about those individuals to the Department of Justice,”
she “abused her authority” and “showed disdain and resistance towards” oversight “by fostering a culture of witness intimidation through a pattern of staff abuse and fear of retaliation,”
she used “demeaning nicknames” for employees interviewed by congressional staff such as “Boris and Natasha,” which her assistant said was because of “their purported physical resemblance to the cartoon characters” from Rocky and Bullwinkle,
she referred to another employee as “weasel” in front of other staff, even “purchasing and distributing” a children’s coloring book called Weasels “to multiple senior FHFA OIG employees,” and
all of this and much more behavior detailed in the 29-page report amounts to Wertheimer having “abused her authority and engaged in conduct that undermines the integrity reasonably expected of an IG.”
These findings mirror what we heard in the Senate and reported to the proper authorities years ago. With all the controversies about IG removals in the previous administration, it’s unclear why this is just now landing on President Biden’s desk.
But, Senators Grassley and Johnson summed up what has been clear to anyone paying attention for years:
To put it mildly, the only thing this watchdog appears to hunt is her own employees.
Do you remember the last consequential oversight work the FHFA OIG did on anything? I didn’t think so. Meanwhile, as the IG was ridiculing her employees’ physical appearance and distributing coloring books, the government took billions of dollars in dividends away from Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders.
The length of time it took to independently substantiate these allegations is a failure of our system and a failure to honor these whistleblowers. As Senators Grassley and Johnson wrote:
The work that we did in addition to the public letters, was only possible thanks to the brave whistleblowers that came to us and exposed themselves to … retaliation. Their testimony, evidence, and dedication throughout this unreasonable five year ordeal was pivotal in discovering much of what has now been confirmed by the IC. In short, without these whistleblowers, this IG’s abhorrent behavior would have likely gone unnoticed.
It’s time for accountability. Since only the president can discipline or remove a presidentially appointed IG, the ball is in Mr. Biden’s court.
UPDATE 4/29 10:38 AM: After posting this story, one of the whistleblowers sent me the following message. I’m sharing it here with permission and with redactions to preserve the whistleblower’s anonymity: