WASHINGTON – The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security put the agency’s former internal watchdog on administrative leave Thursday following the release of a Senate report that concluded he was too cozy with senior agency officials and improperly rewrote, delayed or classified some critical reports to accommodate President Barack Obama’s political appointees.
Secretary Jeh Johnson said Charles K. Edwards, who was allowed to quietly resign and take another job within the department in December, was put on leave after Johnson reviewed the 27-page report from a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee.
“Other individuals who are apparently and allegedly implicated have already left DHS and if additional information comes to light, I will continue to take appropriate action,” Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson said he also spoke with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who led the investigation, and has asked for their investigators to brief him on their findings.
The report said Edwards wasn’t qualified for his job and he lacked the independence required of an inspector general. It also said he asked for guidance from senior Department of Homeland Security officials, instead of from his own staff.
Edwards’ internal transfer, which took place before Johnson was sworn into office, was announced just days before he was scheduled to testify before the subcommittee.
Edwards did not respond to an emailed request for comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
“I value the role the inspector general plays in the department, and I expect the leadership in that office as well as across the department to carry out the important mission we are charged with effectively, responsibly and with the utmost integrity,” Johnson said.
The subcommittee concluded that Edwards changed or delayed multiple reports, including audits focused on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s controversial Secure Communities program, which uses fingerprints collected in local jails to identify immigrants in the country illegally and the Transportation Security Administration’s air passenger screening equipment.
In the case of the ICE program audit, the report said Edwards discussed the timing of the March 2012 report’s release with John Sandweg, then the department’s acting general counsel. In one email, Edwards asked Sandweg what day would be good to release the audit and then followed his suggestion. The report was ultimately released after a DHS official testified before a House panel on the issue. One email Edwards sent the day after the hearing said the final report had been sitting on his desk for a week.
In Washington, timing the release of news can be important to manage any political repercussions: Publishing an embarrassing report just before an administration official is testifying to Congress under oath can give lawmakers an opportunity to ask pointed questions, or delaying release of a report until a Friday afternoon – especially close to a holiday weekend – can help blunt negative coverage.
The administration has been widely criticized by immigration advocates for using the program to identify immigrants for deportation. Local authorities have also complained that former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed the program was voluntary, but then the department declared it mandatory for any local jail that submits inmate fingerprints to the FBI.
In 2011, Edwards classified the TSA audit “Top Secret/Secure Compartmentalized Information” after TSA added information to the report. Edwards’ own assistant inspector general objected to adding the information. The reclassified report, which originally was to be labeled only “secret,” limited who could read it and how they could share its contents.
Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department’s inspector general from December 2000 until January 2011, said inspectors general are intended to be an independent investigative arm of a department and need to remain that way to ensure credibility.
McCaskill and Johnson launched their investigation after whistleblowers complained that Edwards omitted potentially damaging information from a report on the 2012 Secret Service prostitution scandal. His report concluded that there were no widespread culture problems within the Secret Service.
The Washington Post first reported details of the Senate panel’s findings on its website Thursday.
The Senate subcommittee said it found that some information in the draft report on the Secret Service case was altered or removed from the final report but did not substantiate allegations about Edwards’ involvement or motivation for those changes.
The subcommittee repeatedly criticized Edwards for his “frequent communications and personal relationships” with senior Homeland Security officials, including Sandweg and former chief of staff Noah Kroloff, as he conducted investigations and audits.
In at least one email, Edwards told Kroloff how much he valued his friendship and that his “support, guidance and friendship helped me be successful this year.”
Fine, the former Justice Department’s inspector general, said: “It’s probably not best to be socializing on a regular basis” with department officials.
“You are part of the department, but independent from the department, and you should conduct yourself in that fashion in all respects,” Fine said.
Obama nominated a permanent inspector general, John Roth, last year. He was approved by the Senate earlier year and took office on March 10.
Edwards was also criticized for seeking legal advice from Homeland Security general counsel’s office, despite being required by law to only get such advice from his own counsel or that of another inspector general, the report said. Edwards told investigators for the subcommittee that he didn’t trust his own lawyer or anyone else in that legal counsel’s office.
In a written statement, Sandweg said Thursday that the Homeland Security general counsel has long worked closely with the inspector general “on cross-cutting legal and policy issues and to ensure the accuracy of IG audits and reports by reviewing drafts and providing feedback for the IG’s consideration.”
Kroloff did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Both he and Sandweg have left the department.
Sandweg resigned his position as acting ICE director earlier this year and Kroloff left before Napolitano’s departure to lead the University of California last year.
Kroloff is a partner in security and intelligence consulting firm with former Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, who retired from the agency last year.