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WASHINGTON – The State Department's newly installed inspector general, Stephen Akard, has no investigative or oversight experience and faces a slew of potential conflicts of interest, according to an internal State Department email, lawmakers and agency sources.
Akard has another job at the State Department: director of the Office of Foreign Missions, a political appointment he's held since 2019. In that job, which he plans to keep, Akard reports to Brian Bulatao, a top adviser and longtime friend of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's.
Pompeo and Bulatao attended West Point together in the 1980s, and they co-founded a business, Thayer Aerospace, in the 1990s. When Trump named Pompeo as CIA director, he tapped Bulatao as the spy agency's chief operating officer. When Pompeo became secretary of state, he brought Bulatao with him as the agency's undersecretary for management.
In July 2019, Pompeo described Bulatao and his other business co-founders as "my best friends in the whole world."
Akard – who is serving in an acting capacity as the IG after Trump ousted his predecessor – is an ally of Vice President Mike Pence. An Indiana native, Akard served on the state's economic development corporation when Pence was governor.
"This is just astonishing," said Walter Shaub, who served as director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics before resigning over disagreements with the Trump administration. Inspector generals are supposed to be completely independent of the agencies they oversee, he said, but Akard is a Trump political appointee and part of the State Department's management team.
"I've just never seen anything like it," said Shaub, a senior adviser to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The situation has caused concern inside and outside the State Department about Akard's ability to serve as the agency's independent watchdog, according to State Department officials and members of Congress.
The two appointments have put Akard in the position of "trying to straddle the fence – being both the overseer and an official of the agency that’s being overseen," said one State Department official who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "There’s great concern."
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) is investigating two highly contentious matters that touch directly on Pompeo's actions: allegations that he used a State Department employee to run personal errands for himself and his wife, and questions about the State Department's decision to greenlight a highly controversial $8 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
At Pompeo's urging, President Donald Trump announced May 15 that he was firing Steve Linick, who has served as the State Department's IG since 2013.
Democrats in Congress accused Pompeo of trying to shield himself from Linick's inquiries. Pompeo flatly rejected those assertions, saying Linick's ouster was not retaliatory.
"All we’ve done is simply make sure that in respect to the inspector general that we had an inspector general that was working towards the mission of the United States Department of State and the foreign policy of Donald Trump," Pompeo said Sunday during an interview with Fox News.
Linick officially remains on the job under a federal requirement that mandates the White House give Congress 30 days notice before removing an IG. But the longtime investigator has not been allowed to return to his office since May 15. On May 18, Akard began his second State Department job, according to the State Department official.
At a meeting with IG staff that day, Akard tried to assure anxious investigators that he would not try to meddle in investigations.
He told them he was not "here to stop anything or upset the apple cart," the State Department official said. When pressed about his dual roles – and the fact that Bulatao is his supervisor – his answer was not reassuring, the source said.
"His response was 'Well, actually, I don’t consider Brian Bulatao my supervisor ... The president is my direct supervisor,' " the State Department official said. "There was a fair amount of discussion about ... how preposterous that sounds."
Shaub said it's more that preposterous. It's "deeply disturbing."
"It's a pronouncement of political allegiance," he said. And it seems " intended to send a message to his new subordinates in the inspector general office that they need to be defending the personal and political interests of the president, as opposed to conducting their job of being an independent watchdog. ... I take that as a very ominous sign."
In an email obtained by USA TODAY, Diana Shaw, the State Department's deputy inspector general, acknowledges the possible conflicts of interest and said Akard is working to address the issue. She said the complexity of disentangling his conflicts and identifying issues on which he will have to recuse himself could delay oversight work.
"Given the factual and legal complexities of these issues, we are still working on this process, and we are likely to experience delays in our pending work while we resolve these questions," Shaw wrote May 26.
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Shaw said Akard agreed to recuse himself from any investigations of the Office of Foreign Missions, where he will remain as director, and matters involving people he has a personal relationship with "such that his objectivity could be impaired."
Shaw did not respond to emailed questions. The IG office's spokeswoman did not return a voicemail seeking comment, and the State Department's press office also did not respond to emailed questions.
A senior State Department official said that no matter what firewalls are put in place, Akard will still be conflicted.
"The bottom line is if he works for Brian Bulatao and Brian Bulatao is best friends with Mike Pompeo and Mike Pompeo went to the president to get the (previous) IG fired, who in their right mind thinks that Steve Akard has no conflict?" the official said.
He said he fears Akard's appointment will have a chilling effect across the agency.
"If State Department employees ... don't think that the IG is a truly unbiased watchdog and will do what’s right … they’re not going to report corruption within the State Department at any level," he said. "There should be a lot of concern throughout the Department."
A third State Department staffer is "well aware" of Akard's potential conflicts but said "we're going to solve it."
"We’re making progress on identifying any potential conflicts and then coming up with a strategy – that is either through recusal or some other form of screening – that we eliminate those," said the State Department staffer, who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the situation. "But we can't do it in one day. ... We're concerned to get it right."
Lawmakers expressed grave concern about the situation. House and Senate Democrats opened an investigation into Linick's firing. New York Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the White House and the State Department to "preserve all records related to the firing" of Linick.
“President Trump’s unprecedented removal of Inspector General Linick is only his latest sacking of an inspector general, our government’s key independent watchdogs, from a federal agency," the two lawmakers said the day after Trump announced Linick's ouster.
Friday, Engel and Menendez announced plans to interview State Department officials who may have been involved in or aware of discussions about plans to remove Linick. Bulatao is among seven agency officials the two lawmakers seek to speak with, according to a congressional aide working on the inquiry.
Engel said he is worried Linick's probes could be derailed.
“I simply don’t understand how someone who reports to the Secretary of State can also be expected to act as an independent watchdog," Engel said in a statement to USA TODAY.
"Ambassador Akard’s appointment makes it seem as though the Secretary is trying to hide something. I’m determined to make sure Mr. Akard doesn’t bury the investigations" conducted by the inspector general's office, Engel said.
"Congress established inspectors general to serve the American people – to be independent and objective watchdogs, not agency lapdogs," Grassley said Wednesday. He said he is working with other lawmakers on legislation to make sure IGs should not be political appointees.
The controversy over Akard's appointment is not limited to his potential conflicts of interest.
In her email, Shaw noted Akard's lack of experience in oversight work, telling her colleagues that Akard is new and needs to be educated on "what OIG independence means" and what standards IGs must adhere to. She said he was given some "primer materials" and two veteran IGs from outside the agency agreed to give Akard a "crash course" to get up to speed.
Akard is a former foreign service officer who worked at the State Department as a special assistant to Secretary of State Colin Powell and served in U.S. embassies in Brussels and Mumbai. Before his current role, he served as chief of staff with Indiana Economic Development, the state's economic development agency.
He served as a foreign policy adviser to Pence and two other Indiana Republican governors.
"Mr. Akard has no investigatory or law enforcement experience," Engel said. "Even if he were to completely sever his ties with the department, he would remain unqualified to run the OIG."
Trump initially nominated Akard to be director general of the foreign service in 2017, but diplomats and lawmakers objected, saying it would politicize that position, which had long been filled by diplomats with decades of experience.
Akard's nomination was withdrawn in March 2018, but Trump later nominated him for the office of foreign missions position.
Engel said the "unavoidable" conclusion is that Akard was installed in the IG's office to "undermine and scale back" its work and even funnel information to Pompeo and his deputies about matters the IG is investigating.
Shaub said one particularly worrisome element of Akard's appointment is that he will have access to documents revealing the identity of whistleblowers reporting fraud, waste or malfeasance inside the State Department.
"That's got to be terrifying for anybody at the agency who went out on a limb to report to the inspector general any kind of problems or wrongdoing they observed, thinking they would be protected from retaliation," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's pick for State Dept watchdog post faces conflicts of interest,