Democrats Say Trump Official Pressured IG to Drop Investigation

February 20, 2019

Congressional Democrats said Tuesday that a top Education Department official attempted to influence an investigation by its inspector general into the reinstatement of a troubled for-profit college accreditor.

The Democrats told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a letter Tuesday that they “have become increasingly concerned by the department’s efforts to influence the independence of the OIG and that office’s critical work.”

The department announced abruptly last month that it would replace acting inspector general Sandra Bruce with Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt, a longtime Education Department official. After critics in Congress raised questions about the new pick, the White House reversed the decision.

But Democrats said they would continue to look into the decision. And in the letter to DeVos, five senior Democratic lawmakers say correspondence between Bruce and Deputy Secretary Mick Zais show “troubling efforts” to influence the independence of the inspector general -- conclusions a department spokeswoman rejected as politically motivated.

Zais wrote to Bruce last month after learning her office planned to review a decision by DeVos to restore federal recognition for the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an accreditor of for-profit colleges that the Obama administration had sought to eliminate. He said it was “disturbing” that the IG would respond to a congressional request for an investigation of what he said was really a policy disagreement between lawmakers and the department. And Zais urged that any review should also examine the conduct of the Obama administration before its decision to withdraw recognition from ACICS in December 2016.

Bruce wrote back days later to say that the investigation would go ahead and it would not be appropriate to engage further with the department. Within weeks, Rosenfelt was named as her replacement.

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said department officials under DeVos’s leadership would never seek to undermine the independence of the IG’s office.

“For anyone to insinuate otherwise is doing so with no basis in fact and purely for political gain,” she said.

And Hill said discussions about the naming of a new acting inspector general had begun prior to the correspondence over the review of the ACICS decision.

“These discussions began when the previous IG announced her retirement in October of 2018, long before the department requested any investigation of ACICS [including] examining what led a court to overturn the prior administration’s decision of the ACICS matter,” she said.

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