An investigation into the Trump administration’s delayed hurricane relief aid for Puerto Rico was stymied by a series of roadblocks in obtaining information and testimony, according to findings by a federal watchdog released Thursday.
In a new report, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General explained that its review into the timing of the release of $20 billion in disaster recovery funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017 was “hampered” by officials’ refusal to answer questions, as well as delays in conducting interviews and accessing electronic communications.
“While the OIG undertook efforts to mitigate these challenges, the delays and denials of access and refusals to cooperate negatively affected the ability of the OIG to conduct this review,” the report said.
Former HUD Secretary Ben Carson declined to be interviewed unless a department lawyer was present, and investigators ultimately did not obtain his testimony. The report also states investigators were unable to obtain information from several former senior Office of Management and Budget officials related to the office’s decision-making on disaster relief.
CNN reached out to HUD for comment Thursday. Carson declined to comment, according to a spokesperson for Carson’s American Cornerstone Institute.
The Washington Post first reported on the inspector general’s report.
Former President Donald Trump has been criticized over his handling of the 2017 storm, which devastated the island and killed nearly 3,000 people. He denied any fault by his administration and has instead sought praise for his handling of Hurricane Maria, at one point calling it “an incredible, unsung success.” He was also condemned for his visit to Puerto Rico weeks after the storm, where he was pictured tossing paper towels to a crowd of survivors.
Several senior HUD appointees’ interviews were also delayed, as HUD insisted that agency counsel be present during the interviews, according to the report. It noted investigators were concerned about agency counsel being present because that could “create a chilling effect that prevents witnesses from speaking freely with the OIG.”
While some eventually agreed to be interviewed without department lawyers in the room, the report notes those officials then refused to answer questions and claimed information was protected by executive privilege — a presidential power often used to shield sensitive materials from the public.
Investigators conducted 31 interviews with 20 current and former Housing department officials along with two former Puerto Rico housing senior officials, and the witnesses included both senior political appointees and career agency officials, according to the report.
On Monday, HUD announced it was lifting restrictions that had limited Puerto Rico from accessing certain recovery funds and that it would release $8.2 billion in previously approved Community Development Block Grant Mitigation funds to aid in long-term recovery and efforts to combat future disasters.
CNN previously reported that in 2018 White House officials told congressional leaders and appropriators that then-President Donald Trump did not want any additional relief funding sent to the island. And in 2019, HUD said officials would delay the release of more than $8 billion in funding to help to US territory bolster its disaster defenses, with Carson citing “alleged corruption.”
The House Oversight Committee announced in 2019 it would re-launch an investigation into the Trump administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.