Secret Service Watchdog Refused to Probe Lafayette Square, COVID-19 Issues, Report Says Secret Service in riot gear stand guard while then-President Donald Trump visits St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Square in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
By Charlie McCarthy | Tuesday, 20 April 2021 10:41 AM
Proposed investigations into the Secret Service's handling of the George Floyd protests in Lafayette Square and the spread of coronavirus at the agency were blocked by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, according to a new report.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, a federal watchdog for the Secret Service, refused to follow staff recommendations to investigate the agency's role in the forcible clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square on June 1.
The newspaper said the report was based on internal documents and two people familiar with Cuffari's decision.
The Secret Service moved Trump to a church at the edge of Lafayette Square — where the White House staged a photo opportunity for the president — after police suddenly charged a group of largely peaceful protesters.
Cuffari reportedly also sought to limit an investigation, which ultimately was ditched, into whether Secret Service members defied federal protocols to detect and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Hundreds of Secret Service officers either were infected with the coronavirus or were forced to quarantine after potential exposure last year as Trump traveled to campaign stops during the pandemic.
DHS career staffers insisted that probing both the agency's actions at Lafayette Square and its adherence to COVID-19 protocols were needed to hold the Secret Service accountable, according to Post sources.
The Secret Service refused to answer questions about its role at Lafayette Square. Officials have said protesters were cleared under the direction of the U.S. Park Police.
The agency also has said it prioritized the health of its employees, and followed federal protocols to try to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Records obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, revealed Cuffari’s decisions not to pursue the Lafayette Square and COVID-19 probes. The records were shared with the Post.
A DHS spokeswoman said Cuffari prioritizes investigations based on a limited budget, and greenlights probes that target the highest risks with the likely greatest impact.
"Our office does not have the resources to approve every oversight proposal," spokeswoman Erica Paulson said in a statement. "We have less than 400 auditors and inspectors to cover the entire Department of Homeland Security, an agency with almost half a million employees and contractors. Like all IGs, we have to make tough strategic decisions about how to best use our resources for greatest impact across the Department.
"In both of these cases, we determined that resources would have a higher impact elsewhere."
Internal DHS reports showed a spike last summer in the number of Secret Service employees who tested positive for COVID-19. Trump contracted coronavirus in the fall, though it was unclear how he became infected.
The last time a DHS inspector general investigated the Secret Service’s performance was during the Obama administration.
Staffers said Cuffari, a Trump nominee confirmed in 2019, appeared hesitant at times when faced with possible investigations that could potentially criticize the president’s policies or actions.
Paulson disagreed with that assertion. She pointed out Cuffari launched investigations into controversial polices of the Trump administration, including those of DHS detention facilities. She also said the inspector general’s office reported last year on the Secret Service’s total spending for Trump’s 2018 visit to the Trump Turnberry Golf Course in Scotland.
"Evidence that IG Cuffari does not shy away from politically sensitive topics can be found in numerous DHS OIG published reports, as well as ongoing projects," Paulson said.
The House Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., scheduled a hearing Wednesday on the inspector general’s oversight.
"Cuffari pulled his punches on exactly the type of sensitive reviews his office was created to perform," said Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at the Project On Government Oversight. "It doesn’t look like he’s an independent watchdog."