Democrats release transcript of fired IG’s interview as State Dept. accuses him of leaks, requests new probe

Kiyoshi Tanno/iStockBy CONOR FINNEGAN, KATHERINE FAULDERS and BENJAMIN SIEGEL

(WASHINGTON) -- Fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick told lawmakers last week that he does not know if his replacement has continued investigations involving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's office that were ongoing at the time of his removal.

“After May 15, I would have no indication one way or the other,” he said, according to a 253-page transcript of his interview released by Democrats on Wednesday.

In the closed-door session, Linick confirmed that he was conducting an “administrative review” of allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife improperly used department staff for personal errands, and examining the use of emergency legal authority to sell $8 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“We were not judging whether the policy was good or bad. We are nonpartisan. We just look at how policies are carried out and whether they comport with applicable regulations and law,” he said of the weapons probe, adding that a senior aide to Pompeo told him the investigation wasn’t “appropriate.”

He also told lawmakers of three previously unknown investigation that were ongoing, involving Pompeo’s office at the time of his firing: an audit of the special immigrant visa program, a review of the International Women of Courage Award, and a third “involving individuals in the Office of the Protocol.

Linick declined to discuss details of any of the five investigations. He told lawmakers his replacement, acting inspector general Stephan Akard, could decide not to continue ongoing work in the inspector general’s office.

“The Acting IG or the IG always has that authority,” Linick said.

Lawmakers have raised concerns about Akard’s ability to monitor the department impartially given his position as director of the Office of Foreign Missions. Akard, who still retains that title, said last week he would step away from his responsibilities with that office, while he serves as the department watchdog.

He also said Akard had told his staff he had been approached about taking the job in April, weeks ahead he was formally notified of his removal.

Pompeo on Wednesday dismissed Linick's testimony, calling him a “bad actor in the inspector general office here.”

“My mistake was letting Mr. Linick stay here as long as he did,” Pompeo said. “He continued to undermine what it is, the State Department’s mission is aimed at achieving.”

Linick spent much of the roughly seven-hour interview fielding questions about his work at the State Department, and defending himself from accusations from agency leaders that he was responsible for a high-profile leak to the media about one department investigation.

He said he was caught off-guard by his removal, and was notified by a senior Pompeo aide after 7:45 p.m. on May 15, following a town hall with his staff on the coronavirus pandemic.

“The deputy said to me: The President decided to exercise his power to remove you,” he told lawmakers. “The only thing they said was the President has decided to exercise his power to remove you. I asked for a reason for the removal, and neither provided one. The Deputy Secretary [Stephen Biegun] reiterated the sentence about the President decided to exercise his power to remove you.”

On Tuesday the State Department sent a letter to the chair of the inspectors general council requesting a new probe of the agency's watchdog who was fired by President Donald Trump and accusing him of a "disturbing pattern of leaks."

The new letter from a top adviser to Pompeo argues that the Linick should be investigated again after he and his office were cleared of leaking by a probe concluded in March.

But many of the claims in the letter run counter to Linick's sworn testimony to Congress last week, portions of which were obtained by ABC News before Democrats released a transcript Wednesday.

Pompeo said he recommended to Trump that Linick be fired, but the administration has not provided a clear rationale for why. In a letter to Congress, Trump said he lost confidence in the longtime government watchdog, while Pompeo has said publicly it was because Linick's office leaked or because he was investigating policy decisions.

Linick told Congress that he discussed the investigation into misuse of government resources with senior leadership -- specifically a request for documents from Pompeo’s office -- because he didn’t “want them to be surprised.” Pompeo has said he was not aware of the investigation when he recommended Linick’s removal to Trump.

Linick was accused by State Department leaders of leaking the details of a probe into political retaliation against career employees to the Daily Beast in 2019. He defended his decision to request the Pentagon inspector general investigate the matter.

The Defense Department watchdog cleared Linick of wrongdoing. State Department leadership this week requested that the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the organization for federal watchdogs, open a new investigation into the matter.

In the new letter sent Monday to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, Brian Bulatao, the Under Secretary for Management and a top Pompeo lieutenant, wrote that the Pentagon inspector general's office faced "a significant breakdown in the typically-rigorous standards of an IG investigation, warranting CIGIE review.”

In particular, Bulatao wrote, the DOD OIG should not have conducted the probe, which he slammed as "exceedingly cursory."

But Linick testified last week that he requested CIGIE to do the investigation first and the office said no. Instead, the DOD OIG was the third inspector general office that he asked, and in a report concluded in March, it found "no evidence that any DOS OIG personnel emailed or discussed any details of the evaluation report with the authors of 'The Daily Beast' article or other members of the media."

“I specifically asked CIGIE, can you -- is this something that you can handle? And I was told no; they don’t investigate offices,” he told lawmakers.

The article in question is a Sept. 13 report by the outlet that revealed details of an unreleased probe into another top Pompeo aide, senior adviser Brian Hook, and whether he and other officials retaliated against a career employee over her perceived nationality and political beliefs. The probe recommended that Hook face punishment for his role in the retaliation.

The story was sourced to "two government sources involved in carrying out the investigations," so Bulatao and others have pointed the finger at the OIG, which has denied any leaks. The OIG gave the State Department a draft of its report two weeks prior to the Daily Beast story on August 30.

“Obviously, neither I nor anyone else at The Daily Beast is going to comment on our sources. But I will note that the Department of Defense Inspector General looked into whether Steve Linick’s office had leaked to the media -- and found no evidence to support the accusation. We stand by our reporting," The Daily Beast's Editor-in-Chief Noah Shachtman said in a statement.

While Linick and his office were cleared by the DOD OIG, Bulatao wrote that Linick was supposed to refer the leak investigation to CIGIE. But Linick testified that he did first approach the council, and it said no.

When the report was completed in March, Linick did not turn it over to Bulatao or other senior leaders at the State Department, instead telling them that it had cleared his office of the leak. Bulatao accused Linick of refusing to turn it over, but Linick testified that he wanted to first review the report so that it did not disclose sensitive information about his office to State Department leadership or set a precedent of doing so.

Linick, said his relationship was Bulatao was “professional,” though he felt that he also attempted to “bully” him. He said he was worried about providing the Pentagon watchdog’s report to State Department leadership, out of concern of retaliation.

The report “involved an investigation of individuals involved in investigating the Department for political retaliation, and I could imagine the Department using information in the report against them, and wanted to make sure their confidentiality was protected,” he said

The probe reviewed the government emails of 15 OIG employees, including Linick and interviewed 14 of them because the 15th employee had left OIG before the report was even completed. Because the investigation didn't probe personal email addresses or phone records, Bulatao condemned it as "exceedingly cursory" and said it "would catch only the most blatant mishandling of information and would fail to uncover any person who disclosed the draft through an intermediary or sent the report from a personal email address."

The DOD OIG did investigate one person's Gmail account -- Linick. The ousted IG may have violated OIG email protocol by emailing password-protected drafts of the report to his Gmail account on eight occasions while traveling over six days in August 2019. A review of his account found he did not forward the report on, the DOD OIG said.

Linick said he was within State Department email protocol -- which allows for personal email use when access to a government account is limited -- but OIG rules specifically prohibit that: "The use of corporate or personal equipment, systems/applications, to include to email, or other file storage sites to store, process, or transmit OIG or Department data is prohibited." Linick testified he would have requested an exemption given his travel schedule and the need to finish the report, which he was working on when accessing it from his Gmail account, he said.

In his letter, Bulatao letter wrote that Linick never shared this part of the report's finding with State Department leadership and that it raises questions about his judgment, although neither he nor Pompeo knew about it at the time Pompeo recommended his firing.

Bulatao also accused Linick of inappropriately contacting staff at the inspector general’s office after he was terminated and put on administrative leave.

A lawyer for Linick pushed back on Bulatao’s letter obtained by ABC News on Wednesday, saying that Linick was never directed not to contact former colleagues or return to his office, and that there would be “no legal basis” to prevent him from doing so.

“Upon learning of his firing, one of Mr. Linick’s central concerens was -- and remains -- ensuring an orderly transition of matters within the OIG,” Peter White, his attorney, wrote to Bulato. “By definition, this required Mr. Linick to remain in contact” with his former staff. He also said Linick has been in touch with the office to stay in compliance with federal recordkeeping laws.

Linick told lawmakers he was escorted back to his office the Saturday following his firing in May to collect personal effects.

He also said that he has heard concerns from people within the federal watchdog community that his removal - and Trump's firing of other inspector generals in recent weeks -- could have a negative impact on their oversight work.

"I can tell you that anecdotally I have 4 heard people express some fear," he said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Check Also

Hospital worker charged with 7 counts of murder following string of mysterious patient deaths

DNY59/iStockBy KARMA ALLEN, ABC News(CLARKSBURG, Va.) -- A former Veterans Affairs nursing assistant has pleaded guilty in federal court to killing seven hospital patients by injecting them with unnecessary insulin, and assaulting another patient with ...