WASHINGTON - Two former CIA employees are accusing the Trump administration's choice for CIA chief watchdog of being less than candid when he told Congress he didn't know about any active whistleblower complaints against him.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Christopher Sharpley, the current acting inspector general who's in line for the permanent job, about complaints that he and other managers participated in retaliation against CIA workers who alerted congressional committees and other authorities about alleged misconduct.
“I'm unaware of any open investigations on me, the details of any complaints about me,” Sharpley testified at his confirmation hearing last month.
He said he might not know because there is a process providing confidentiality to anyone who wants to file a complaint against government officials, who often are individually named in cases against management.
“No action or conclusions of wrongdoing have been made about my career or anything that I've done,” Sharpley added.
The committee is still considering Sharpley's nomination.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden say they find it hard to believe Sharpley didn't know about the complaints when he testified. They said one of the open cases is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog.
They say the DHS inspector general's office, which is looking into the CIA matter to avoid a conflict of interest, asked Sharpley in January for documents. The office asked to interview Sharpley on Oct. 12. Sharpley's office said he wouldn't be available until after Oct. 17 - the day he testified to senators.
“How is it possible that he could have been unaware of any open investigations against him at the time he testified?” Grassley, R-Iowa, and Wyden, D-Ore., asked in a letter they wrote to Senate intelligence committee leaders.
GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, had planned a vote on Sharpley's nomination last month. It has been delayed while the committee holds discussions about the whistleblower cases, according to someone familiar with the matter. The person wasn't authorized to discuss the issue and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani defended Sharpley's five-year tenure at the agency as deputy and then acting inspector general. He said Sharpley has 36 years of investigative and law enforcement experience and created two inspector general offices from scratch within the federal government.
“Whether there are any complaints or investigations regarding Mr. Sharpley is not something we could confirm or comment on,” Trapani said. “What we can say is that Mr. Sharpley has had a sterling five-year career at CIA and there have never been any findings of wrongdoing or misconduct of any sort by Mr. Sharpley during his tenure here.”
Documents provided to the AP by attorneys representing two former CIA employees challenge Sharpley's testimony.
They point to discord over several years within the CIA's inspector general's office, an independent unit created in 1989 to oversee the spy agency. It's charged with stopping waste, fraud and mismanagement and promoting accountability through audits, inspections, investigations and reviews of CIA programs and operations - overt and covert.
John Tye, executive director of Whistleblower Aid, who is representing two of the complainants alleging retaliation by Sharpley and other senior managers, said some discord in the office stemmed from a case several years ago involving kickbacks from contractors.
The Justice Department announced in 2013 that three CIA contractors had agreed to pay the United States $3 million to settle allegations that they provided meals, entertainment, gifts and tickets to sporting events to CIA employees and outside consultants to help get business steered their way.
The criminal case fell apart after intelligence employees discovered that evidence in the case was being fabricated and witness statements were being altered. These employees secretly went around Sharpley and then CIA Inspector General David Buckley and contacted the U.S. attorney's office. Tye said that after learning about the falsified evidence, a guilty plea in the case, which had already been accepted by a judge, was voided at the request of the U.S. attorney.
Afterward, leaders at the CIA inspector's office asked auditors across town at the Federal Housing Finance Agency to look into their in-house matter. It's unclear why that agency - a place where Sharpley previously worked - was chosen to handle the matter. Results of that investigation haven't been revealed.
In an Oct. 30 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Tye said that during the FHFA probe, Sharpley improperly “interrupted witness interviews, walking in special designated conference rooms to learn the names of the whistleblowers within his staff” who reported evidence tampering to outside oversight bodies. Tye said no one within the CIA inspector general's office was prosecuted or disciplined for evidence tampering.
“Sharpley successfully identified some, but not all, of the whistleblowers,” Tye said. He said retaliation involved forcing administrative leave, security clearance decisions and other harassment.
One complainant is Jonathan Kaplan, 59, a former special agent and investigator in the CIA's inspector general's office who spent 33 years at the agency. He claims that before he went to talk to staff at the House Intelligence Committee about the contactors case, he queried a computer in his office to refresh his memory on the details.
He later received a formal letter of warning for searching the computer system. That ultimately prevented him from renewing his security clearance, effectively ending his government career. He contacted an inspector general overseeing all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and received a letter earlier this year acknowledging that office was handling the case.
A second complainant is Andrew Bakaj, 35, who worked in the CIA inspector general's office as a special agent from 2012 to 2015. He was instrumental in developing agency regulations governing whistleblower reprisal investigations.
When some of his colleagues came to him to allege misconduct in the office, he referred them to the same inspector general Kaplan went to. It was an office Bakaj and his colleagues had been told not to cooperate with.
He, too, searched on the office computer on a matter he was questioned about and had worked on as part of an investigation conducted by the inspector general that oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies. Two weeks later, superiors summoned him and put him on paid leave that lasted 15 months. He then resigned.