American Oversight in the News: 2018 in Review

This past year, records we obtained exposed corruption and misconduct in the administration ranging from lavish office renovation expenses, to unqualified political appointees, to the use of personal email systems for government business. With Congress poised to get back into the oversight business, we’ve begun filing FOIAs and lawsuits seeking documents on issues that the incoming Congress hopes to investigate.

Luxury Travel and Office Expenses at Taxpayer Expense

We’ve been investigating misuse of taxpayer funds by senior administration officials, which included spending millions of dollars on chartered flights for government travel and unnecessary office renovation expenses, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and animal heads being hung in outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office

Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 soundproof phone booth? It actually cost more like $43,000.

Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin — March 14, 2018, The Washington Post

The [Environmental Protection Agency] paid a Virginia firm $7,978 to remove closed-circuit television equipment to make room for the booth, according to a federal database. Officials hired another contractor to pour 55 square feet of concrete more than two feet thick, at a cost of $3,470, according to invoices released under a public records request by the watchdog group American Oversight. Other workers installed a drop ceiling for $3,361, while still others patched and painted the small area for $3,350, records show.

Ben Carson Defends Buying $31,000 Dining Set to Congress: ‘I Left It to My Wife
Glenn Thrush — March 20, 2018, The New York Times

Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, told a House committee on Tuesday that he had “dismissed” himself from the decision to buy a $31,000 dining room set for his office last year, leaving the details to his wife and staff. … But emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request last week seemed to contradict that account. In an Aug. 29, 2017 email, the department’s administrative officer, Aida Rodriguez, wrote that one of her colleagues “has printouts of the furniture the secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.” American Oversight, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, had requested the emails.

Rex Tillerson Spent $1 Million In Taxpayer Money Flying Around The Country, Watchdog Group Estimates
Jessica Schulberg — October 18, 2018, The Huffington Post

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent over $1 million in taxpayer money flying around the country aboard military jets, often traveling for personal purposes, according to an estimate by American Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. The estimate is based on government documents the group obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with HuffPost. The documents show that Tillerson used military jets at least 15 times during his nearly 14-month stint as the nation’s top diplomat to travel to Texas, Colorado, Montana, and West Virginia.

Unethical and Unqualified Appointees

We’ve obtained the resumes of hundreds of political appointees across the administration. Many show connections to President Trump’s presidential campaign or to the Trump Organization. It’s clear the president values personal connections and loyalty over experience, often leading to under-qualified appointees working in top jobs in the administration — many of whom used to work for the industries they are supposed to be regulating. See our full investigation.

Ethics Be Damned: More than half of Trump’s 20-person Cabinet has engaged in questionable or unethical conduct
Tom Scheck — February 16, 2018, American Public Media / Marketplace

American Oversight, a group formed by several staffers who worked in President Obama’s administration, has relied on Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits to force the Trump administration to release public information. By mid-January, the group filed more than 600 open records requests and more than 20 lawsuits, said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. American Oversight’s efforts include lawsuits for the personal calendars of DeVos and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and records from the Justice Department, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Interior.

‘Using his position for private gain’: Ben Carson was warned he might run afoul of ethics rules by enlisting his son
Juliet Eilperin and Jack Gillum — January 31, 2018, The Washington Post

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson allowed his son to help organize an agency “listening tour” in Baltimore last summer despite warnings from department lawyers that doing so risked violating federal ethics rules, according to internal documents and people familiar with the matter…. In the days before the listening tour, Carson Jr. used a company with which he is affiliated to invite a prominent local chief executive, Calvin G. Butler Jr. of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and then personally connected Butler’s chief of staff with senior agency officials. The email exchange was obtained by the Democratic-leaning group American Oversight and provided to The Post.

Meet the 24-year-old Trump campaign worker appointed to help lead the government’s drug policy office
Robert O’Harrow Jr. – January 14, 2018, The Washington Post

In May 2016, Taylor Weyeneth was an undergraduate at St. John’s University in New York, a legal studies student and fraternity member who organized a golf tournament and other events to raise money for veterans and their families. Less than a year later, at 23, Weyeneth, was a political appointee and rising star at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White House office responsible for coordinating the federal government’s multibillion dollar anti-drug initiatives and supporting President Trump’s efforts to curb the opioid epidemic.

How a Twentysomething Eagle Scout Became One of Donald Trump’s Top Trade Hands
Lachlan Markay – January 25, 2018, The Daily Beast

Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, is relying on a small group of relatively unseasoned officials to advance a complex agenda, including renegotiating landmark free trade deals and cracking down on allegedly unfair practices by China, Mexico, and other major global economic partners. None have drawn more scrutiny and attention within the trade policy community than G. Payne Griffin, Lighthizer’s deputy chief of staff. … As part of the resume he submitted to the USTR—a resume obtained by the progressive watchdog group American Oversight and sent to The Daily Beast—he noted among his leadership skills that he was an Eagle Scout. The work experience portion included his stint as an “executive intern” at the College Republican National Committee.

Big Pharma’s Government Revolving Door: ‘Who Do They Really Work For?’
Sydney Lupkin — January 25, 2018, Kaiser Health News / Daily Beast

KHN also reviewed the résumés of more than 100 HHS appointees, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by American Oversight, a nonprofit founded to hold government officials accountable. Although only a handful of recent appointees were employed directly by drug companies, more than a dozen had worked as lobbyists, consultants, and lawyers on behalf of pharmaceutical firms.

Ivanka Trump’s Use of Personal Email:

The president’s daughter has had an unusual role in the administration from the very beginning. In 2017, we filed FOIAs and a lawsuit seeking emails between Ivanka Trump and federal officials at various agencies. Our lawsuit sparked a White House inquiry into her use of personal email which ultimately found that she used personal email for government business on hundreds of occasions.

Ivanka Trump used a personal email account to send hundreds of emails about government business last year
Carol Leonnig and Josh Dawsey — November 19, 2018, The Washington Post

Ivanka Trump sent hundreds of emails last year to White House aides, Cabinet officials and her assistants using a personal account, many of them in violation of federal records rules, according to people familiar with a White House examination of her correspondence.

Austin Evers, executive director of the liberal watchdog group American Oversight, whose record requests sparked the White House discovery, said it strained credulity that Trump’s daughter did not know that government officials should not use private emails for official business.

“There’s the obvious hypocrisy that her father ran on the misuse of personal email as a central tenet of his campaign,” Evers said. “There is no reasonable suggestion that she didn’t know better. Clearly everyone joining the Trump administration should have been on high alert about personal email use.”

Ivanka Trump Repeatedly Used Personal Email at White House, Review Finds
Maggie Haberman — November 19, 2018, The New York Times

Ivanka Trump repeatedly used a personal email account to conduct government business in 2017, a White House review found, a fact that raises the stakes on congressional oversight hearings that the new Democratic House majority will hold.

The liberal watchdog group American Oversight said on its website that its freedom of information requests had led to the discovery of the volume of Ms. Trump’s email use. The emails obtained by American Oversight showed exchanges with the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and other top personnel at agencies.

“The president’s family is not above the law, and there are serious questions that Congress should immediately investigate,” Austin Evers, the group’s executive director, said in a statement on the website.

Expectations of Loyalty in the Administration

President Trump has made it clear from the beginning that he values loyalty over experience. American Oversight obtained resumes from USDA, which show that under-qualified appointees who expressed loyalty to President Trump on their resumes now work in key jobs at the agency. Employees who oppose the president find themselves demoted or punished, and there have been reports of attempts to purge employees who are viewed as insufficiently loyal. See our investigation into loyalty and retaliation in the administration.

Ben Carson’s HUD: Political loyalty required, no experience necessary
Tracy Jan — September 20, 2018, The Washington Post

The political hires were among at least 24 people without evident housing policy experience who were appointed to the best-paying political positions at HUD, an agency charged with serving the poorest Americans. They account for a third of the 70 HUD appointees at the upper ranks of the federal government, with salaries above $94,000, according to the Post review of agency records.

The limited experience at the upper reaches of the agency — HUD Secretary Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has no prior housing, executive or government background — injected confusion into the rollout of policy initiatives and brought delays to even routine functions, according to interviews with 16 current and former career staff members.

HUD staffer who complained about Carson’s redecorating resigns under protest
Jack Gillum and Juliet Eilperin — June 27, 2018, The Washington Post

Foster filed a complaint with the special counsel’s office late last year, saying she was demoted in part for warning officials that the redecorations planned would require congressional notification since their cost would exceed $5,000. Despite that threshold, she alleged staffers had instructed her to “find money” for the effort.

Documents released by the left-leaning group American Oversight revealed HUD staffers vetted different furniture options for Carson while soliciting input from his wife, Candy.

In emails released under the Freedom of Information Act, Foster wrote to colleagues about being forced to respond to “endless questions about why I won’t fund more than the $5000 limit” for redecorating the office.

Ethics Agency Warns Federal Workers Not To Discuss Impeachment Or ‘Resistance’
Peter Overby — November 30, 2018, NPR

A federal ethics agency is telling civil servants to avoid workplace talk about impeachment and #resistance for the next 705 days — until the day after Election Day 2020. … American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, is urging [the Office of the Special Counsel] to rescind the new guidance. Austin Evers, the group’s director, said the agency should enforce the Hatch Act, but the guidance “opens a dangerous door for the Trump administration to crack down on dissent.”

Civil Rights Infringements in the Administration

From dehumanizing immigration policies to attempts to ban transgender individuals from the military, our documents show the administration has responded inconsistently to civil rights abuses. We’ve been investigating the administration’s transgender military ban and found that President Trump’s announcement caught top Pentagon officials off-guard. And although Customs and Border Protection (CBP) warned employees not to describe immigrants detained at the border with dehumanizing language, a Veterans Affairs official was blocked from condemning white nationalists after Charlottesville.

New Emails Show Confusion At The Pentagon After Trump’s Transgender Ban Tweets
Vera Bergengruen — September 21, 2018, Buzzfeed

Within minutes, Trump’s tweets had been shared among Pentagon officials in every way possible: in links, pasted to look like a formal statement, and screenshotted onto PowerPoint slides that were widely distributed among senior defense officials.

The emails, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, and shared with BuzzFeed News, span the three hours after the president’s tweets and indicate frantic activity as senior officials, with no warning or formal guidance, resorted to sharing news reports by reporters who knew as little as they did. “Can you give me a call ASAP?” read one, while others describe hastily convened meetings in one another’s offices.

Don’t condemn white nationalists, Veterans Affairs’ diversity chief was told after Charlottesville, emails show
Lisa Rein — December 5, 2018, The Washington Post

A top White House appointee at the Department of Veterans Affairs sought to silence the agency’s chief diversity officer, who — in the aftermath of last year’s racially charged violence in Charlottesville — pushed for a forceful condemnation that was at odds with President Trump’s response, newly disclosed emails show. … The emails were provided to The Washington Post by the nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight, which obtained them via the Freedom of Information Act.

A Border Patrol Media Officer Had To Remind His Agency Not To Describe Immigrants As #CatchOfTheDay
Adolfo Flores — December 6, 2018, Buzzfeed

At a time when the Trump administration has made great efforts to portray undocumented people as criminals, the then-director of the United States border enforcement agency’s media division told spokespeople to describe immigrants humanely, with dignity and respect. An Oct. 26, 2017, email cited Customs and Border Protection’s social media hashtag #CatchOfTheDay as an example of what not to do. The email was provided to BuzzFeed News by the nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request after it noticed that the Department of Homeland Security used the #CatchOfTheDay hashtag with photos of immigrants the government had apprehended.