On Tuesday, five Democratic lawmakers published a letter condemning the Education Department’s decision to replace Sandra Bruce — the independent inspector general for the DOE conducting a federal investigation into Secretary Betsy DeVos and the possible conflicts of interests behind her relationship with a shady accreditor of criminal for-profit colleges.
Following a congressional request made last December, the inspector general began her formal probe into Secretary Devos’ 2018 decision to reinstate the “Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools” (aka ACICS), the controversial agency that was recently stripped of its credentials under the Obama administration for allowing for-profit colleges (such as ITT Tech and Corinthian College) to use illegal recruitment tactics, fraudulent education programs and other unlawful infractions against students, according to an NBC News review of court documents.
Obama’s 2016 termination of ACICS was once supported by the Trump administration, though DeVos’ sudden policy reversal has understandably raised red flags among anyone with a pulse and a touch of skepticism towards government. Now there are concerns regarding the conflicting interests behind their reinstatement and the DOE’s willful refusal to cooperate with federal watchdogs. HINT: Follow the money and the political motivations.
The letter cites a January 3rd DOE memo written by their deputy secretary Mick Zais who requested the watchdog “reconsider any plan it might have to review” their decision, insisting the office look away and divert their resources towards the past administration’s ruling for unspecific policy reasons. The case for obstruction of justice couldn’t be more obvious if it were tattooed on Zais’ forehead.
This was noticed by oversight committee members in Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) who decried the memo as a “clear attempt to violate the statutory independence” of the inspector general’s office — an institution which isn’t allowed to take requests from the people they’re supposed to investigate. Bruce, knowing the basic 101 ethics of her job, replied that the office would continue their investigation anyway.
“Independence, in appearance and fact, is key in the effective operation of an OIG (Office of Inspector General),” Bruce wrote, adding federal law makes taking DOE counsel on these investigations illegal. By January 30th, it was announced their troublemaking watchdog would be replaced with a Trump lackey in the DOE’s own Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt— only for the DOE and the White House to reverse the removal after just two days of media backlash.
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the DOE, gave Politico the tired ‘we dindu nuffin’ statement about how the decision to remove Bruce was being used as “political theatre” to spew fake news. Keeping the excuses short, sweet and unspecific, Hill expects us to believe talks of replacing Bruce with their own hand-picked DOE insider happened well before the Zais memo was sent. This means either the government is lying out of their ass or was stewing over a watchdog replacement for over a month for another reason completely unrelated to these conflicts of interest. We’re just expected to believe the government who made their decision once the investigation began.
Imagine my shock.
“These claims are simply untrue and don’t match the actual sequence of events,” Hill insisted. “The Department of Education, under Secretary DeVos’s leadership, would never seek to undermine the independence of the Inspector General. For anyone to insinuate otherwise is doing so with no basis in fact and purely for political gain. [Rosenfelt] has a highly-respected 48-year career as a civil servant. [Our choice], which has been reversed, was made on the merits and intended to provide stable leadership.”
Democrats, also viewing these gaffes as a glaring obstructionist mess, have requested all documents regarding both the ACICS decision and why Bruce was temporarily expelled from her post by March 5th.
“As we learn more about this inappropriate appointment and surrounding events,” the members of Congress wrote, “we have become increasingly concerned by the Department’s efforts to influence the independence of the OIG and that Office’s critical work.”
“In particular, we are disturbed to learn that the decision to remove Acting Inspector General Bruce was preceded by demands from the Department that the OIG drop an investigation into Secretary DeVos’ reinstatement of ACICS or alternatively to focus the investigation on Department decisions during the Obama Administration.”
The Zais memo states this particular request was to analyze why the previous administration didn’t consider 36,000 pages of “key evidence” regarding the conduct of ACICS before denying accreditation status, noted in March by a federal judge overseeing a dispute. This is irrelevant due to both the Obama government’s current lack of political power and ACICS still failing to “meet numerous federal standards,” with “no evidence” these pages refute the unlawful behaviors leading to their termination, as revealed through both unsealed court documents and the Trump administration’s internal report.
“This report makes clear that ACICS is a wholly unfit and unreliable evaluator of higher education institutions: its decisions are not recognized by educators, schools or employers across the United States, and it has shown zero evidence that it can make decisions that protect students and consumers,” said Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, speaking with InsideHighered last year. “Betsy DeVos may be content with ignoring the overwhelming outside consensus on ACICS’s performance, but she cannot deny the expert opinions of her own staff.”
Antoinette Flores, the associate director for the Center for American Progress, suggests ACICS would once again be found ineligible if a truly independent investigation continues. “I don’t see how the department can decide to do anything other than find them noncompliant and deny them recognition,” she told InsideHighered following ACICS’ renewal. “It was [their] choice to reinstate ACICS while they consider other information. Regardless of what new information the department considers, the original 2016 decision was the right one.”
The smoking gun behind the reversal, despite all the evidence proving ACICS’ malicious actions, lays in the pay-to-play corruption at the heart of the DeVos reign. Instead of “draining the swamp of Washington,” Trump’s government found administrative positions for the monsters laying at the very bottom. This is showcased in the numerous individuals hired by DOE with known for-profit experience who — surprise, surprise — are rolling back the very regulations directly opposed to their financial interests.
Two DeVos hires include senior advisor Robert Eitel and his associate attorney Linda Rawles, both of whom worked at Bridgepoint Education during the reports of their institution deceiving students into taking out loans that cost more than advertised. This resulted in a bigger take for their debt collector associates known for directly contributing to the DeVos family’s multi-million dollar wealth. DeVos was required to divest from these for-profit and debt collecting institutions once taking office, though is likely to receive compensation in one form or another once her helpful work in government is through.
According to a report from the Better Business Bureau, debt collectors associating with DeVos and Bridgepoint, such as Performant, have reportedly racked up a staggering 346 complaints regarding unethical conduct. This behavior includes calling debtors at work, calling family members of debtors during business/night hours and requesting massive debt payments from the elderly and veterans who didn’t owe the requested debts in the first place, as covered in my report for TrigTent near the end of 2017. Other instances of this corruption have been highlighted in investigations from Education Opportunity, a bipartisan organization committed to protecting students. It’s not controversial to say these relationships indicate the government’s interests lean towards the donors, not the students .
This is why the DOE, like other Trump institutions, routinely abuse ethical standards to thwart transparency. It was the same when the White House sought to replace an agency watchdog with the Interior Department conducting two investigations into then-Secretary Ryan Zinke. It was the same when Trump fired 25 members of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after criticisms of the corruption of former director Mick Mulvaney. It was still the same when Trump fired federal investigators, including former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, for looking into the corruption of former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — who was also later fired for corruption once it became an undeniable mainstream story. This is even before we mention James Comey, the former FBI director previously investigating ties between Trump and the Russian government, fired after Trump personally requested an end to the investigation.
There’s a shameless routine behind the Trump administration’s brand of corruption, where the quiet part of these secret dealings is instead shouted brazenly through a #MAGA megaphone for all the public to hear. There’s no under-the-table trickery, no “4D Chess.” It’s not even your standard corruption — it’s a fire of cockiness, and every investigator can see the ‘uge smoke trail for miles.