Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao speaks on January 14, 2018, at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao speaks on January 14, 2018, at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit. (Kathleen Galligan/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON - The Department of Transportation told House Democrats their allegations that the department's acting inspector general was wrongfully terminated "contains numerous errors of fact and law."

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, Steven G. Bradbury, the DOT's general counsel who is also performing the duties of deputy secretary, took umbrage at a Tuesday letter from House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.; House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore.; and Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., saying new acting Inspector General Howard R. "Skip" Elliott is unqualified for the position.

The Democrats' letter, Bradbury wrote, "wholly mischaracterizes Skip Elliott's background and experience." And he said Mitch Behm, the prior acting inspector general, was not removed from office but instead "has long served and continues to serve in his position as Deputy Inspector General."

In an emailed statement later Thursday, Maloney and DeFazio, said Bradbury's letter ignored a clear conflict of interest in Elliott's new role.

"The response today from the Department of Transportation actually seems to be trying to defend the idea that someone can serve both as a political appointee reporting directly to the Secretary and as an independent Inspector General charged with overseeing the Secretary's actions," the Democrats wrote. Our Committees will continue investigating this attack on the independence of Inspectors General."

Behm, a 17-year veteran of the DOT's Office of Inspector General who most recently served as deputy inspector general, assumed the acting role when his predecessor, Calvin L. Scovel III, retired in January after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Behm was removed from that role last Friday in one of a series of inspector general reassignments and firings. The reshuffling drew widespread attention because of the announcement that Department of State Inspector General Steve Linick would be ousted. Elliott, who is currently also the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, will continue to serve as head of that agency.

President Donald Trump on Friday also nominated a permanent inspector general, Eric Soskin. That nomination awaits Senate approval.

The reassignment drew swift and harsh criticism from Maloney, DeFazio and Connolly, who demanded in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao that Behm be reinstated immediately.

They called Behm's removal the latest in a series of politically motivated firings of inspectors general by Trump. In a separate letter to Elliott, the committee leaders questioned Elliott's ability to serve as the watchdog for the DOT while maintaining responsibility for one of its agencies.

The "inherent conflict of interest would prohibit you from having the independence necessary to conduct fair and rigorous oversight of the Department and the Secretary," they wrote, urging him to step down from his role at PHMSA as well as recuse himself from any investigations involving that agency or Chao's office.

On Thursday, Bradbury defended Elliott, saying he "brings decades of safety and law enforcement experience to his role as the Acting Inspector General."

Elliott, a former railroad executive who spent seven years as a police officer, "has dedicated his entire career to public safety," he wrote.

Bradbury also defended Elliott's dual hats as PHMSA administrator and acting inspector general, saying "there is no basis to suggest that he cannot work on OIG matters involving the Office of the Secretary."

"Mr. Elliott will recuse himself from OIG audits or investigations of PHMSA matters falling under his responsibility as Administrator of PHMSA, and, to the extent appropriate, the Deputy Administrator can supervise PHMSA operations on a delegated basis" he wrote.

Washington ethics organizations including the Center for Responsibility and Ethics have argued that Behm was removed because the DOT IG office confirmed last year that it was investigating allegations that Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, gave special treatment to McConnell's constituents, steering millions of dollars to Kentucky in order to help his political prospects.

"Your letter implies that there was some nefarious motive in the designation of Mr. Elliott to serve as Acting Inspector General - a baseless implication for which your letter provides no evidence," Bradbury wrote, arguing the "unsupported assertions in your letter do a gross disservice to Mr. Elliott, to the Department, and to the American people."

He wrote that the DOT "looks forward to a public correction" of the Democrats' letter.

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