The Trump administration is transferring a political appointee to be the acting watchdog of the Interior Department, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is facing multiple investigations.
Suzanne Israel Tufts, an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will become Interior Department inspector general, at least on a temporary basis, according to an announcement by HUD Secretary Ben Carson in an email to internal agency staff Friday reported by multiple news outlets.
Tufts "has decided to leave HUD to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior," he wrote.
"I am extremely grateful to Suzanne for her service at HUD and am confident that she will thrive in her new role," Carson wrote.
The acting position does not require Senate confirmation.
Tufts, HUD’s assistant secretary for administration since December, is an attorney from Queens, N.Y., who ran a consulting company. She does not have experience in government investigations or environmental and public lands policy, and previously worked for the Trump campaign.
Her appointment took the inspector general’s office by surprise.
“The Office of Inspector General has received no official communication about any leadership changes,” Nancy DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said in a statement.
The Interior Department deferred comment to the White House on any official announcement.
Critics said the arrangement is not appropriate since a political appointee would be charged with overseeing ongoing investigations of Zinke. The role is typically nonpartisan.
“This is a very big deal,” said Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general for the Justice Department, in a Twitter post. “Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any Congressional oversight. Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency's head should raise alarm bells everywhere.”
Bromwich also directed the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in the Obama administration.
The inspector general’s office is investigating whether Zinke violated conflict-of-interest laws when the foundation he established brokered a real estate deal with developers linked to global oil services firm Halliburton. It is also investigating his wife’s travel habits. The Interior Department's inspector general previously cleared Zinke of any wrongdoing regarding his use of military and chartered flights.
However, it said Zinke "could have avoided" taking a $12,375 charter flight to his home state of Montana after he spoke in June 2017 to a professional hockey team in Las Vegas owned by a former campaign contributor.