WASHINGTON — House and Senate Democrats say they have obtained evidence that a senior official at the Department of Education tried to oust the department's independent watchdog after she pushed back on an attempt to interfere in an active investigation of Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Lawmakers from four House and Senate committees who oversee the department sent a letter to DeVos Tuesday, suggesting the effort to replace the department's acting Inspector General, Sandra Bruce, had been related to her duties in overseeing the probe of DeVos's decision to reinstate ACICS, an accreditor that had been stripped of its certification by the Obama administration.
"We have now received correspondence between the Department and the (Office of Inspector General) that reveals troubling efforts by the Department to influence the ACICS investigation," House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., wrote to DeVos.
Scott was joined by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who serves on the House Appropriations Committee; and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee handling education.
Earlier this month, after the effort to demote Bruce became public, the department backtracked on its decision to replace Bruce with a handpicked official to serve as the agency's acting watchdog, after criticism that the designation posed a serious conflict of interest.
Inspectors general provide independent oversight at federal departments and agencies, with the intent that they are free from the influence of political appointees in order to act on behalf of taxpayers.
In this case, Scott cites a letter dated Jan. 3 obtained from Education Department deputy secretary Mitchell Zais to Bruce. In the letter, according to Scott, Zais wrote that he found it "disturbing" Bruce was proceeding with the probe of ACICS and "asked (her) to reconsider any plan" to review the department's decision to restore its accreditation.
Bruce, Scott said, then "communicated her plans to continue" the investigation and "underscored the importance of maintaining independence from the department." A few weeks later, Zais notified Bruce that she would be removed from the position.
NBC News has not reviewed the correspondence between Zais and Bruce. A spokesman for Scott said his office was not authorized to release it at this time.
The exchange between Zais and Bruce as described in Scott's letter underscores a concern expressed across a number of federal agencies — that the Trump Administration is attempting to blur what are supposed to be clear lines between cabinet officials and the independent investigative arms that exist to police their policies, conduct and use of taxpayer dollars.
In October, the White House sought to replace the agency watchdog at the Interior Department who was conducting two investigations into then-Secretary Ryan Zinke.
ACICS accredited two large for-profit colleges, ITT Tech and Corinthian College, before they were both shut down amid lawsuits, investigations and Obama administration sanctions over deceptive recruiting, poor quality programs and other infractions.
The Obama Administration also withdrew ACICS's recognition, citing a "profound lack of compliance" with the "most basic" responsibilities of an accreditor.
DeVos has come under scrutiny for hiring a number of individuals who, in the past, have worked or lobbied on behalf of for-profit colleges and who are now rolling back Obama-era rules that were meant to rein in an industry with a history of misleading students and poor educational outcomes.
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill told NBC News a response to Scott's letter would be forthcoming.
Earlier, explaining DeVos's decision to restore ACICS's accreditation, Hill noted that the Obama administration had failed to review 36,000 pages of documents related to ACICS's application to continue as a recognized accreditor. That lack of review, Hill said, led a federal court to send the decision back to DeVos, who restored the accreditation.
Late last month, DeVos told a gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universitiesthat the department needed to pull back its oversight of college accreditation, arguing that it has become "too costly" and that the federal government "has overstepped in areas in trying to do things that really are best left to accreditors," according to Politico.