Demoted DOD Watchdog Must Exit $2T Virus Oversight Panel

By Daniel Wilson
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Law360 (April 7, 2020, 6:37 PM EDT) -- President Donald Trump has upended a watchdog committee overseeing more than $2 trillion in federal COVID-19 relief funding, effectively removing panel Chairman Glenn Fine by replacing Fine in his role as acting U.S. Department of Defense inspector general, the agency said Tuesday.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Sean O'Donnell will replace Fine as acting DOD inspector general. Fine will resume his previous position as principal deputy inspector general, DOD Office of Inspector General spokeswoman Dwrena Allen said in a statement.

Fine will also no longer serve on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, one of several oversight bodies established by the massive Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Allen added.

A group of inspectors general, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, had appointed Fine to chair the nine-member panel on March 30, where he would have had broad authority to investigate potential waste or fraud in coronavirus relief funding. But the CARES Act allows only inspectors general and those acting in the role to serve on the committee.

U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the chair of the council, had said in a statement at the time that Fine was "uniquely qualified" for the position, with more than 15 years of experience as an inspector general.

Fine, a former Dechert LLP partner and DOJ inspector general between December 2000 and January 2011, has served as the acting DOD watchdog since the beginning of 2016. He was nominated by President Barack Obama in September 2016 to take on the role permanently but was not confirmed by the Senate before his nomination expired at the end of the year.

A representative for the council did not have any immediate response to Fine's ouster as acting inspector general on Tuesday.

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., was one of a number of Democrats to slam Trump's decision, saying Tuesday the president was "playing politics" with oversight of the more than $2 trillion in virus relief funding provided by Congress.

"President Trump must not treat the coronavirus crisis with the same corruption, cronyism and cover-ups that have characterized his presidency," Hoyer said in a statement. "Doing so will only hamper the bipartisan effort to help combat coronavirus and get our economy back up and running faster."

House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the move was a "blatant attempt to degrade the independence of inspectors general who serve as checks against waste, fraud and abuse."

A representative for the White House did not immediately respond to questions about Democrats' allegations or why Trump had chosen O'Donnell — who will continue to serve as EPA inspector general — to replace Fine.

Fine's ouster came after Trump formally nominated Jason Abend, currently a senior policy adviser at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, on Monday to take over as permanent DOD inspector general. Abend is a former special agent at the inspector general's offices of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Fine is the second acting inspector general to be replaced by the president in less than a week, after Trump removed acting Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson on Friday, citing an unspecified "loss of confidence" in Atkinson.

Atkinson argued in a statement on Sunday that he had been fired for doing his job. He had told lawmakers in September about a whistleblower complaint regarding Trump's handling of military aid to Ukraine, which ultimately led to impeachment proceedings against the president in the House of Representatives.

"It is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial inspector general," Atkinson said.

--Additional reporting by Andrew Kragie and Bryan Koenig. Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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