House and Senate Democrats said Tuesday that the Education Department's decision to replace its acting inspector general was "preceded by demands" that she "drop an investigation" into Secretary Betsy DeVos' reinstatement of a troubled accrediting agency that was stripped of its powers during the Obama administration.
At issue is a January 3 letter the department's deputy secretary, Mitchell Zais, wrote to the Education Department's watchdog, which was cited by the Democrats and then released by the department.
Zais wrote that it was "disturbing" that the inspector general "appears to be responding to a Congressional request that is really a disagreement over policy and the merits of the Department's decision." Zais then asked acting inspector general Sandra Bruce to "reconsider any plan that it might have to review the Department's 2018 Decision and 2018 Recommendation," adding that if the office believes a review is "warranted" it should also examine the Obama administration's failure to consider significant evidence in its decision.
Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, called the claim "simply untrue."
"The Department of Education, under Secretary DeVos's leadership, would never seek to undermine the independence of the Inspector General," Hill said. "For anyone to insinuate otherwise is doing so with no basis in fact and purely for political gain."
Hill added that the discussions to appoint a new inspector general started when the previous one, Kathleen Tighe, announced her retirement in October 2018. She said that the department's choice, which has been reversed, was "made on the merits and intended to provide stable leadership."
In December, the Education Department's inspector general office said it would look into the matter regarding reinstating accrediting agency following a request from Democratic members of Congress. On January 30, the Trump administration moved to replace Bruce with Education Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt, who Hill called "a highly-respected 48 year career civil servant." On February 1, the White House and the Education Department reversed their decision.
"As we learn more about this inappropriate appointment and surrounding events, we have become increasingly concerned by the Department's efforts to influence the independence of the OIG and that Office's critical work," wrote the Democratic members of Congress. "In particular, we are disturbed to learn that the decision to remove Acting Inspector General Bruce was preceded by demands from the Department that the OIG drop an investigation into Secretary DeVos' reinstatement of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) or alternatively to focus the investigation on Department decisions during the Obama Administration."
Last year, the Trump administration reinstated the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which reportedly approved around 240 colleges and $4.7 billion in federal aid before the Obama administration moved to derecognize the national accreditor amid the collapse of major for-profit colleges like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute.
The letter to DeVos was sent by House Education and Labor Committee chairman Bobby Scott, Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
Appointing one of the department's top lawyers to be the person in charge of investigating the department for potential wrongdoing had raised concerns within the watchdog's office and on Capitol Hill.
A couple of weeks ago, Scott, DeLauro and Murray sent a letter requesting more information from the department about how the decision was made, which the Democrats reiterated on Tuesday.
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