Homeland Security watchdog previously accused of misleading investigators, report says

WASHINGTON - The Homeland Security watchdog now under scrutiny for his handling of deleted Secret Service text messages from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack previously was accused of misleading Justice Department investigators and running “afoul” of ethics regulations while he was a federal agent in charge of a DOJ inspector general field office in Tucson, according to a newly disclosed government report.

In the 2013 report from Justice Department’s inspector general, which was never publicly released, investigators said they did “not believe” Joseph V. Cuffari’s explanation for why he failed to inform his supervisors - against federal rules - about his testimony in a lawsuit brought by a federal prisoner.

Separately, they found that he broke ethics rules by referring law firms to the prisoner’s family, including firms where some of his close friends worked. “We concluded Cuffari’s actions violated the IG manual’s prohibition on unethical conduct,” said the report, which also noted that he may have violated guidelines by using his government email to lobby for a position as inspector general for the Arizona National Guard, among other issues.

An internal team recommended referring Cuffari to the Office of Inspector General’s investigations unit for a deeper review of his actions, the report said - but Cuffari quickly retired and later worked for the office of then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, R.

When he was nominated five years later by President Donald Trump to become the Homeland Security watchdog, Cuffari told Senate lawmakers in a questionnaire that he had been fully truthful to investigators in that case. Senators in both parties did not press him for details of the Justice Department probe before his confirmation in July 2019.

The new details in the report, which was obtained by The Washington Post, raise questions about how thoroughly Cuffari was vetted for one of the most important oversight jobs in government, experts said, and about his suitability to lead a staff of 750 auditors and investigators with oversight of an agency with a workforce of 240,000 and a $50 billion budget.

A spokesperson for Cuffari’s office issued a statement via email Wednesday, noting that Cuffari had been fully vetted by FBI, the White House and the Senate during the nomination process. The Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment. Regarding the report, the spokesperson said Cuffari “has not received nor seen the report to which you refer.”

Cuffari said he was proud of his record in the Air Force and in the Justice Department’s inspector general office, where he said he probed alleged violations of federal prisoners’ civil rights. The spokesperson, who was not identified, also said that Cuffari received numerous awards and “retired with a spotless record from DOJ OIG.”

Cuffari’s three years as inspector general have been marked by numerous allegations of partisan decision-making and investigative failures - most recently, his decision in February to scrap efforts by his department to recover Secret Service texts sent during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Defense Department’s inspector general office has also been investigating allegations for more than a year that Cuffari retaliated against several whistleblowers on his staff, according to individuals familiar with the case.

The missing texts are now at the center of an investigation by the House committee probing the Jan. 6 attacks, and Democratic lawmakers have accused Cuffari of failing to act aggressively in the case.

Cuffari’s nomination sailed through a committee of federal inspectors general that interviewed him for less than an hour and recommended his candidacy to the Trump White House.

Despite his lack of high-level management experience and a government career in which he advanced over 20 years to a role supervising fewer than five agents in an outpost of the Justice Department’s watchdog division, the White House and the Senate moved quickly to install Cuffari at Homeland Security after controversies had engulfed a string of previous watchdogs.

“Honesty and integrity are nonnegotiable in watchdogs,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator with the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight, which this week called on President Biden to fire Cuffari. “How can Congress, the White House and the public trust him on matters of grave public importance?”

House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., in a statement, said the report “raises yet more questions” about whether Cuffari can complete an investigation into the missing Secret Service text messages “with impartiality and integrity as Inspector General.”