In 2022, American Oversight used public records requests and litigation to obtain more than 750,000 pages of documents that belong to the public. Through our investigations, we’ve exposed threats to democracy and helped demand accountability from government officials in several states and federal agencies.
The records have also bolstered the efforts of others seeking government transparency through research, investigative journalism, and litigation. From prompting the Homeland Security and Defense Departments to improve their records retention policies, to creating a comprehensive timeline of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, here are some of American Oversight’s biggest stories this year.
In March 2021, American Oversight obtained fraudulent electoral certificates submitted in support of Donald Trump from seven states he lost in the 2020 election. The phony certificates drew renewed attention in January 2022, with the House select committee investigating Jan 6 later issuing subpoenas to 14 of the false electors. Records we obtained show that several of the false electors remained involved in partisan and discredited investigations of the 2020 election.
The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol voted on Dec. 19 to send criminal referrals to the Justice Department for former President Donald Trump and key allies. In June, American Oversight published a comprehensive, minute-by-minute timeline of the events of that day, combining records we obtained with public reporting and evidence released by the committee. Among the records featured in the timeline are the call logs of top Justice Department officials from that day, as well as internal Secret Service security alerts and a Secret Service timeline of former Vice President Mike Pence’s movements. Many of those records were cited by the Washington Post in its Pulitzer Prize-winning report about the events leading up to, during, and after the Jan. 6 attack.
American Oversight continued to shake loose hundreds of pages of public records related to the Arizona Senate’s sham “audit” of 2020 votes in Maricopa County. In May, one year after suing the Senate for records, American Oversight published an updated report detailing findings that further exposed the review as a biased, anti-democratic tactic to undermine faith in the 2020 election. After multiple court rulings, we also obtained public records previously held by “audit” contractor Cyber Ninjas, which provided further evidence of the firm’s connections to election deniers and conspiracy theorists.
In August, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fired conservative lawyer Michael Gableman, the lawyer hired to oversee the state Assembly’s baseless review of the 2020 election. In October, we published a report of findings from our investigation of the review, which — as a judge in one of American Oversight’s lawsuits put it — had found “absolutely no evidence” of voter fraud. Our investigation also revealed important information about the review’s costs, its connections to prominent election deniers, and its failures to meet public records obligations.
In January, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against Fulton County, Pa., seeking multiple categories of records related to its late 2020 election “audit” that had been missing from sets of documents the county had previously released in response to our requests. We later sent a letter to Wake TSI, the firm that conducted the analysis of voting machines, asking it to preserve any and all related records. The previous year, American Oversight had obtained records indicating that state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a prominent election denier and Trump ally who later ran for governor, had threatened county commissioners with subpoenas unless they voluntarily participated in an audit of votes.
American Oversight has uncovered a number of stories about the network of officials and activists who have been working to undermine trust in democracy, including Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem, Mike Lindell, Patrick Byrne, Phil Waldron, and others. In November, we sued Sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County, Mich., to compel the release of his communications with voting restriction activists, including voter-fraud alarmist group True the Vote.
Records revealed that Honest Elections Project, a group pushing discredited election conspiracy theories, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had worked with state legislators to craft bills allowing lawmakers to intervene in lawsuits challenging specific voting measures, or to require legislative approval of certain settlements and consent decrees, like those expanding absentee ballot access. We also investigated how lawmakers in Georgia restructured local elections boards, allowing partisan actors to gain control over election administration, and obtained documents revealing that the changes often came as a surprise to the board members and typically provoked strong backlash.
We also have been investigating the efforts of right-wing activists and partisan lawmakers to consolidate election administration power by supporting a radical constitutional interpretation known as the independent state legislature theory, under which only state legislatures have the authority to regulate federal elections.
American Oversight discovered through litigation that the Department of Defense and the Army had wiped the phones of top officials at the end of the Trump administration — including texts from Jan. 6. Those revelations in August came shortly after the Secret Service came under fire for also having deleted text messages from Jan. 6. Within days, the Pentagon publicly announced a new policy regarding the preservation of text messages and other information stored on mobile devices. The Department of Homeland Security also announced it would stop wiping the phones of high-level officials without backing them up, and would launch a review of its record retainment practices.
In another lawsuit brought by American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) admitted to having instructed senior Trump officials to wipe their phones upon departure. A judge ordered the agency to preserve the mobile devices of seven former officials.
In June, American Oversight sued the offices of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton to compel the release of records including communications with the gun lobby, emails sent by Paxton around the Jan. 6 insurrection, and offiical communications sent using non-governmental accounts or devices. Abbott and Paxton filed motions to dismiss the suit, which American Oversight asked the court to reject in October.
In September, we sued the office of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the state’s Department of Labor and Regulation for failing to release public records about expenses related to Noem’s activities while in office. The lawsuit seeks information about multiple trips the governor took in early 2022, including several with overtly partisan destinations. The suit also seeks records of any legal costs incurred by taxpayers from the alleged forced retirement of a state official following Noem’s intervention in her daughter’s application for a state appraiser license.
After Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin launched a school tip line to report the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts,” American Oversight sued Youngkin’s office in August for failing to release requested records, including emails sent from the tip line, related communications among staff and with external entities and individuals, and policies and procedures used to handle incoming tips. In a November response, the governor’s office said it had no records responsive to our request for emails sent in response to tip line submissions, suggesting that Youngkin and his staff did not substantively follow up on any tips.
Earlier in the year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through a new congressional map that aggressively favored his own party and significantly reduced the voting power of the state’s Black residents. Records obtained by American Oversight and reporting by ProPublica revealed the governor’s office had worked with consultants connected to the national Republican Party — a potential violation of the state’s constitution.
Florida has been a hotbed of far-right measures, from abortion restrictions to bans on critical race theory. We obtained documents tracing the origin of several such controversial bills to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office, including draft legislation that would have reduced government transparency, increased executive authority, and made it harder to amend the state constitution. We also obtained records showing that just over a week after DeSantis proposed a six-month gas tax holiday, his office instead sent lawmakers draft legislation that limited the tax break to only a single month just before the November election.
In November, American Oversight filed an amicus brief in Lambda Legal and the ACLU’s lawsuit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the state Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) over DFPS’s implementation of Abbott’s February directive calling for the provision of gender-affirming care to be investigated as child abuse. In the brief, we asked the court to consider documents we obtained through public records requests, which demonstrate that DFPS staff interpreted the directive as a new rule under state law. The documents also reveal that DFPS leadership instructed staff not to communicate in writing about Abbott’s directive, and that lower-level employees were not authorized to handle such cases.
We obtained emails from 2021 from Ginni Thomas — the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas whose far-right activism and efforts to overturn the 2020 election have drawn significant scrutiny — that suggest that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had been in touch with Justice Thomas.
American Oversight obtained records that show the level of access that the Republican Attorneys General Association’s top corporate donors had with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who became RAGA’s national chair in May 2021. As the Center for Media and Democracy highlighted in its report on those records, emails sent by RAGA officials to Wilson’s office in advance of several requested meetings contained briefing information about the companies along with requests for Wilson to share certain information or messages.
The Intercept reported on emails we obtained showing how in 2017 one of the biggest fertilizer producers in the United States lobbied the Trump administration to impose tariffs on fertilizer imports — tariffs that went into effect in 2021. According to the Intercept, foreign imports dropped and Mosaic gained control of 90 percent of the U.S. phosphate fertilizer market.
We also obtained emails, reported on by Politico, showing that in 2019, a member of a federal mine safety commission asked a coal industry executive for input on hiring an administrative law judge. The executive was part of a “Network” of dozens of outside advisers whose identities were kept private, raising serious concerns about ethics and industry influence at the agency.
After governors in Florida, Texas, and Arizona made headlines sending asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants to cities hundreds of miles away, American Oversight filed records requests about the transportation programs widely viewed as political stunts. Records we obtained included contract documents for Gov. DeSantis’ Sept. 14 flights carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., as well as text messages suggesting that the governor’s office was in contact with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office about that flight.
American Oversight also investigated border states’ deployment of law enforcement and military resources to attempt to counter unauthorized immigration through efforts like Operation Lone Star in Texas and Arizona’s Border Strike Force. In February, we obtained emails indicating that former Trump administration officials Ken Cuccinelli and Russ Vought suggested that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declare an “invasion” at the border to authorize the use of war powers.
In August, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against several federal agencies for the release of public records related to Title 42, a public health provision invoked by the Trump administration to restrict immigration under the guise of fighting the pandemic, a policy widely criticized by human rights advocates. Earlier in the year, we obtained emails showing that former White House adviser Stephen Miller had spearheaded the policy.
American Oversight also updated its extensive timeline of records related to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, the measure that formalized the separation of migrant children from their families. We obtained records providing additional evidence of the administration’s failure to adequately plan for the reunification of children with family members.
In January, we obtained documents from the Executive Office for Immigration Review that showed San Francisco immigration court officials celebrating a system that fast-tracked the cases of immigrants who missed court appointments because of undelivered mail — and resulted in an increase in deportation orders. And using U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services records that were obtained through a case litigated by American Oversight, University of Southern California professor Emily Ryo published research uncovering disparities in the naturalization approvals process for different racial, religious, and gender groups.
Part of Investigation: