Peters wants answers from DeVos over effort to fire watchdog

By: - February 21, 2019 1:51 am

Gary Peters (left) and Betsy DeVos (right)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) is demanding answers from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about her department’s abrupt decision last month to fire its internal watchdog.

Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, was one of five House and Senate lawmakers who sent DeVos a lengthy letter Tuesday asking for details about the move to replace the Education Department’s acting inspector general, and the reversal days later.

“As we learn more about this inappropriate appointment and surrounding events, we have become increasingly concerned by the Department’s efforts to influence the independence of the [Office of Inspector General] and that Office’s critical work,” they wrote.

On Feb. 1, the Trump administration announced it was reversing its decision to replace the department’s inspector general after the unusual move drew scrutiny, as the Advance first reported.

Like other large federal agencies, the U.S. Education Department has an independent internal watchdog charged with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. The inspectors general are appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation.

After reports surfaced that the Education Department would be replacing its acting Inspector General Sandra Bruce with the department’s deputy general counsel, Phil Rosenfelt, critics accused the administration of jeopardizing the office’s independence.

Phil Rosenfelt | U.S. Education Department

Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said in a statement, “After the designation of the Acting IG was made, the matter came to the attention of new personnel in the White House. After they reevaluated the situation, the decision was made, in an abundance of caution, to rescind the designation.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill aren’t satisfied.

They wrote that they were “disturbed” to learn that the decision to remove Bruce had been preceded by demands from the department that the inspector general’s office drop an investigation into DeVos’ reinstatement of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), or to focus their investigation on department decisions made during the President Barack Obama administration.

In late 2018, House and Senate lawmakers had asked the inspector general’s office to investigate the department’s decision to restore recognition for the ACICS.

DeVos last November reversed an Obama administration move when she re-granted recognition for the contentious agency that accredits for-profit institutions. The Obama administration determined that the agency had been conducting lax oversight for years, according to the Washington Post.

In a Jan. 3, 2019, letter to Bruce, DeVos’ Deputy Secretary Mitchell Zais expressed displeasure that the inspector general’s office was conducting that investigation, the Democratic lawmakers wrote. Bruce said she planned to continue the review.

A few weeks later, Zais notified Bruce that she’d be removed from her post.

“We are concerned that these actions by the Deputy Secretary represent a clear attempt to violate the statutory independence of the OIG,” the Democrats wrote.

Peters was joined in sending the letter by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.); Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.); House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.); and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on a House panel that oversees education spending.

The Education Department’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.