The White House reversed a decision to replace the Education Department’s acting inspector general on Friday, two days after the inspector general’s office said it received word that a new acting head watchdog had been appointed.
The White House’s choice for the post had raised concerns from Democratic lawmakers and the department’s own inspector general’s office.
In a phone call Wednesday, the White House and the Education Department had informed the department’s internal watchdog that Education Deputy General Counsel Philip H. Rosenfelt would be replacing the acting inspector general effective immediately, according to Catherine Grant, spokeswoman for the Education Department Office of the Inspector General.
After former Education Department Inspector General Kathy Tighe retired at the end of 2018, her deputy, Sandra Bruce, became the de facto acting head of the office, per the department’s normal line of succession for the post.
The Education Department inspector general is appointed by the White House with Senate confirmation. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, the “first assistant” of the office serves as the acting inspector general unless the President appoints someone else, according to Grant.
Appointing one of the department’s top lawyers to be the person in charge of investigating the department for potential wrongdoing raised concerns within the watchdog’s office and on Capitol Hill.
Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott of Virginia and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state questioned Rosenfelt’s “abrupt appointment” in a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sent Friday, saying the appointment “dramatically undermines” the independence of the office. The letter requested more information from the department about how the decision was made.
Grant said Rosenfelt’s appointment “presents OIG independence problems.”
Two days after the phone call informing the office of its new boss, Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said the White House changed its mind and decided not to appoint Rosenfelt as the acting inspector general.
“After the designation of the Acting IG was made, the matter came to the attention of new personnel in the White House,” Hill said in a statement. “After they reevaluated the situation, the decision was made, in an abundance of caution, to rescind the designation.”
In a sign of the confusion involved in the situation, Grant said the office has “not received anything from the White House nor anything more from the Department since the Wednesday phone call.”
A senior administration official tells CNN that Rosenfelt, who is a longtime career official, never reported for duty.
The White House had not responded to CNN’s request for comment at the time of publication.