New internal report shows Trump watchdog accused of misleading investigators

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 05: The U.S. Department of Justice seal on the stage where U.S. and U.K. Law enforcement officials will announce warrants for the arrests of Maksim Viktorovich Yakubets and Igor Olegovich Turashev, two Russian hackers associated with a group called Evil Corp., at the U.S. Department of Justice on December 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. Today the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the U.S. Treasury Departments Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action against Evil Corp, the Russia-based cybercriminal organization responsible for the development and distribution of the Dridex malware. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)


“The 2013 memo we are releasing today raises yet more questions about whether Mr. Cuffari can complete this investigation with impartiality and integrity as Inspector General,” Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney reiterated in a statement Wednesday.

The Democrats serve as chairs of the House Homeland Security and House Oversight and Reform Committee, respectively.

“We know that Inspector General Cuffari sat on the knowledge of the erased text messages for a year, choosing not to notify Congress and even discouraging his own investigators from recovering key information.  Given Mr. Cuffari’s repeated failures, we urge him to heed our call and step aside,” they said.

The findings are tied to Cuffari’s time as a special agent in Arizona where he oversaw an investigation at a Department of Justice field office reviewing allegations that prison guards had assaulted an inmate. The charges were never brought against the guards, but the 2013 memo notes how Cuffari told the inmate’s family they could sue the government in civil court instead.

He also gave them a series of referrals for attorneys they might retain, including a firm where one of his friends worked. This opened a door to the unethical enrichment of his friends, the report notes. 

Cuffari ultimately ended up testifying in court against the government in that case, and he did so without notifying his superiors. Originally, the government was concerned that if Cuffari testified, he would potentially expose privileged records or information. After he testified and when questions over his conduct were raised, Cuffari defended himself by saying he was under the impression that his testimony—at the inmate’s request—was merely a continuation of an earlier deposition he provided and wasn’t out of bounds. 

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He defended his referrals to firms where his friend worked as part and parcel of the Crime Victim’s Rights Act, which states that Department of Justice employees must make their “best effort” to ensure that victims of crimes are afforded legal advice.

2013 Report OIG Cuffari by Daily Kos on Scribd

Further review by the agency found Cuffari’s defenses of his actions “simply not credible.” Between his close relationship with the inmate’s family and his decision to obscure his conduct, his activities culminated in violations of rules for inspectors general, the department found. 

There were other issues, too. 

In the process of reviewing Cuffari’s emails while it conducted its ethics investigation, the Justice Department noted that Cuffari served on a commission for appellate court appointments in Arizona without getting the required permission.

There was also the matter of Cuffari donating extra printers from the Office of the Inspector General to the high school where his wife worked as principal. He failed to tell anyone about that either. He also used his work email to lobby for a job as inspector general of the Arizona National Guard.

“Cuffari contacted Congressional staff members and commented on matters involving the Department of Justice; Cuffari wrote a recommendation letter in his official capacity and on OIG letterhead in support of an assistant U.S. attorney’s candidacy to become a magistrate judge,” the report found. 

When the Justice Department’s inspector general completed its probe into Cuffari in 2013, he retired shortly after. Trump would end up appointing him in November 2018. When he finally went before the Senate for his confirmation hearing in 2019, there was no discussion of the earlier investigation into his conduct. Senators didn’t bring it up, and neither did he. 

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In the questionnaire, when asked if he had ever been “disciplined or cited for a breach of ethics or unprofessional conduct by, or [had] been the subject of a complaint to, any court, administrative agency, professional association, disciplinary committee or other professional group,” Cuffari answered succinctly. 

“No,” he wrote.

In the same questionnaire, he was also asked whether at any point during his career his conduct was subject to investigation. Cuffari disclosed some of the details behind the prison guard assault case and his role in it but not completely, saying only that he answered questions that were asked of him in court.

Cuffari could not be reached for comment by Daily Kos immediately Thursday, but a spokesperson did tell The Washington Post  Wednesday that his record was “spotless.” Notably, the spokesperson said Cuffari had never even seen the internal report published on Wednesday. 

When Trump appointed him to serve as DHS inspector general, Cuffari was the fourth person he put forward for the role.

Trump made firings of government watchdogs who were critical of his administration a key feature during his time in the White House. It happened with such regularity, in fact, that the House of Representatives passed legislation to increase protections for inspectors general and made it so that a president could only remove one in very limited circumstances, including abuse of authority or violation of the law. 

Over six weeks in early 2020, for example, Trump went on a particularly intense firing spree, removing five inspectors general from their agencies. They included Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the nation’s intelligence community; Mitch Behm, the Transportation Department’s inspector general; Glenn Fine, the Defense Department inspector general; Christi Grimm, the acting inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services; and Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general. 

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Cuffari has been on the defensive of late. Politico reported first on Aug. 1 that he sent out a note to staff at the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office commending them for their good work and resiliency as the office “responds to untruths and false information about our work.”  

Within hours of Cuffari trying to rally those inside his office, Maloney and Thompson issued a letter publicly saying they had evidence to suggest Cuffari abandoned an attempt to collect Jan. 6-related texts from Secret Service agents and tried to cover it up. 

RELATED STORY: Cover-up alleged by top Democrats probing missing Secret Service text, DHS watchdog asked to recuse

Today, there are still a number of inspectors general working in the Biden administration who were originally appointed by former President Donald Trump.

One of them is Mark Greenblatt, the inspector general who cleared the Pentagon and Defense Department of any wrongdoing in its response on Jan. 6. 

Greenblatt’s role may soon warrant an extra layer of scrutiny in light of revelations this week that the U.S Army and Defense Department also “wiped” devices belonging to top Department of Defense officials, including those who oversaw the response to the Capitol attack. 

RELATED STORY: Army, Department of Defense officials messages from Jan. 6 erased



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