Career official replaced as acting Transportation Department watchdog praises new boss in letter to congressional investigators
August 6, 2002
August 6, 2020
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) is the bully pulpit, within the US Department of Transportation, “to improve the performance and integrity of DOT’s programs to ensure a safe, efficient, and effective national transportation system” within the departmental modes, including the Office of the Secretary. This office issues many, many reports/audits; some of these investigations are requested by outside parties (hotline and whistleblowers) as well as initiated by the Inspector General.
Though appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the OIG is statutorily established as “autonomous.” Indeed the previous Inspector General (2006-2020 ) Calvin Scovel III articulated independent, well respected opinions during the Obama and Trump Administrations.
His January 10th retirement added to a Trump Administration kerfuffle with the Congress over removing the OIGs of a number of Departments in what was alleged to have been efforts to avoid brewing problems within their respective executive organizations (State, HHS, Defense, Intelligence Community ). Without any announcement (one would have expected that only Sec. Chao could have done this) Mitch Behm, a career official took the role as the department’s acting inspector general. Behm worked his way up the OIG organization chart since 2003 with excellent academic credentials. Seventeen years in this office would make him a seasoned, well informed acting OIG.
The controversy began when the President named Howard “Skip” Elliott, the Administrator DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) , as acting DOT inspector General. This temporary (date unspecified) appointment created what appeared to be, and probably actually was, a conflict. The OIG was investigation the Secretary and was simultaneously subject to her direction in his role at PHMSA.
On May 15, a OIG nomination came from the White House:
Eric J. Soskin, of Virginia, to be Inspector General, Department of Transportation.
Mr. Soskin has served as Senior Trial Counsel for the United States Department of Justice in the Federal Programs Branch since 2006. He has spearheaded a multi-office defense of complex litigation across the Civil Division and has experience with a wide range of executive and legislative branch agencies and statutes. Mr. Soskin has also served as a Policy Counsel in the Office of the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, where he supervised input on legislation and rulemaking, and in the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Soskin clerked on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for the Honorable Paul S. Diamond.
Mr. Soskin earned a B.A. in Mathematics and Political Economy, magna cum laude, from Williams College, and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School. He was the Submissions Editor for the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology and the Notes Editor for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. Mr. Soskin is a recipient of the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service.
Mr. Soskin’s resume shows remarkable academic achievements. His work after law school is only in public service. The extensive “qualifications” form adds to his qualifications and minimal political involvement:
His answer to one of the form’s questions was most telling about his grasp of the DOT’s future:
The major national investments in infrastructure over the last several years and those expected in the coming years have only increased the significance and importance of the accounting and financial controls that are one of the essential functions of the Inspector General. Further, in the next decade and beyond, the Department of Transportation will be pivotal in facilitating and regulating the development of many of the most transformative technology areas – drones, autonomous vehicles, commercial space launches, and key aspects of infrastructure in roads and rail. And the safety responsibilities that are the cornerstone of DOT’s mission will be challenged by these technologies as well as by emerging threats to U.S. security in the physical and cyber domains. “
His political involvement was unduly related to the White House with membership in the Federalist Society (2002- ) and Hamilton Society (2012- ) plus a $1,000 donation in 2012 to Romney for President.
His testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee was very positive:
“President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation’s internal watchdog division told senators that if confirmed he would pursue investigations without bias.
‘We will investigate all allegations and issues without fear or favor and without regard to whether it involves a political nominee or not. The public is entitled to have oversight of everyone in the Department of Transportation, including political appointees,” Eric Soskin, the nominee to become the department’s inspector general, told the Commerce Committee on Aug. 6.
Soskin added that his interagency experience has helped him to “recognize the critical role of the inspector general in each agency in combating waste, fraud and abuse, and advancing efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of government programs.”
“An IG should be, like me, a leader passionate about upholding public confidence in our federal institutions and sustaining our democracy by ensuring accountability and thereby delivering the results the public expects from their government,” he explained.
The nominee had told the lawmakers that among the challenges he anticipates to encounter within the next 10 years include “ensuring the safety of transformative technologies within the purview of DOT, including unmanned and autonomous vehicles, private access to space and other transportation technologies to ensure their embrace by the public.”
“For these to unleash their full potential to provide economic opportunity to hundreds of millions of Americans, we must strike the right balance between establishing safety — and, as importantly, the perception of safety — to ensure the business and consumer confidence needed for widespread adoption and to enable a diversity of new business models, while also creating an environment in which innovation can flourish,’ he wrote in responses to a questionnaire from the committee.”
“Soskin’s experience includes being a senior trial counsel for the Department of Justice in the federal programs branch since 2006, according to background the White House posted online.”
Soskin appears to follow in the tradition of Messrs. Scovel and Kenneth Mead (who now is with AOPA) who balanced the vagaries of investigating all of the modes against a institutional inclination towards omniscience. A bit of understanding of the limitations and demands of the modes being reviewed will result in the agency receiving feedback being more effective in adopting the improvements!!
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