Celebrating Government Transparency This Fourth of July

Less than a day after last year’s Fourth of July celebrations drew to a close, Scott Pruitt, the scandal-ridden administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced his resignation. Pruitt’s office had spent tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on things like biometric locks and a soundproof phone booth, he had flown first-class and stayed in a lobbyist-funded condo, and his calendars had revealed extensive meetings with the energy and chemical industry. News reports the week of his resignation had detailed Pruitt’s use of a secret, separate calendar to hide his schedule from the public.

Pruitt’s tenure is but one example of how for the past two and a half years, the American people have lived under an administration that regularly telegraphs its disdain for the idea that the government works for the people, from its flouting of ethics laws that enable corruption to its maintaining unheard-of financial conflicts of interest that enrich those at the very top.

At the same time, President Donald Trump’s administration continues to resist the system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution. It has defied congressional subpoenas and has operated as if the presidency is above the law, a posture that just this week led congressional Democrats to file a lawsuit to obtain the president’s tax returns.

Pruitt’s exit from the administration in 2018, like the departure of Tom Price the year before, was a reminder that government officials are — and should be — accountable to the people. When the public is armed with information about how its government is operating in its name, that knowledge can shift the power from the corrupt back to the people.

This Fourth of July holiday, as Trump attempts to subvert what has traditionally been a nonpartisan celebration in our nation’s capital and turn it into a display of his power and a party for his donors, it is worth remembering the importance of government transparency and the power that an informed public can have in a democracy.

As James Madison wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” The American people deserve such information — whether it’s the president’s tax returns, records that detail who has influence over major decisions, or details about cabinet members’ conflicts of interest — so that they can make informed decisions at the voting booth.

American Oversight continues to work to uncover misconduct in both the federal government and the states. Here are some other things you need to know this week:

Census and Citizenship: After confirming that it will begin printing the 2020 census forms without a citizenship question, the Trump administration apparently reversed course and told a judge it would try to come up with a “new rationale” to include the question. Last week, the Supreme Court had ruled against the question’s inclusion, calling out the administration’s “contrived” reasons for adding the question, which would have deterred many undocumented immigrants from responding, thus leading to an inaccurate count of certain communities. We obtained the calendars of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who had claimed that the Justice Department had requested the question’s inclusion — those calendars revealed multiple meetings about the census, and other documents indicate that Ross himself had actively pursued the question’s inclusion. We’re still looking for answers, and have an active lawsuit for records related to the Justice Department’s involvement. 

Oversight of Federal Contracts: Documents we uncovered show that hiring of government watchdogs who monitor federal contractors’ compliance with anti-discrimination laws has declined significantly during the Trump administration. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs investigates discrimination complaints and makes sure that government contractors comply with affirmative action laws and don’t discriminate against employees. 

Personal Emails: The 2016 Trump campaign’s relentless focus on Hillary Clinton’s email practices seemingly did little to instill in the current administration a sense of the importance of following record-keeping laws. Multiple administration officials, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, have used personal email or messaging accounts for government business. Now, Congress is asking the White House for all communications sent via personal accounts. American Oversight is also investigating — our Freedom of Information Act requests in 2017 sparked an internal White House investigation that revealed that Ivanka Trump used personal email on hundreds of occasions.

New Lawsuit: During and after the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year, questions arose about Kavanaugh’s involvement in a scandal from the early 2000s. In 2002, Republican Senate staffer Manny Miranda was accused of leaking Democratic staff computer records about judicial nominees to the White House Counsel’s office, where Kavanaugh was working at the time. We asked the Justice Department for records from that time period, including communications with or about Miranda. This week, we filed a lawsuit to compel the release of those records.

Trump and the FBI Headquarters: The Justice Department’s inspector general has announced that it would be investigating the FBI’s role in the decision to scrap longstanding plans to relocate its headquarters to the D.C. suburbs. The controversial decision raised eyebrows, not least because the current headquarters location is located just a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel, and because the president himself was involved in the reversal of plans. We’ve been investigating whether Trump’s interference was done to help his personal business, and have filed five lawsuits against the administration to obtain records. 

Saudi Arms Sales: Back in May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration was declaring an Iran-related national security emergency so as to bypass Congress and rush a sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The move raised a number of concerns: First, Pompeo and then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had failed to mention the emergency just three days before during a closed-door briefing with Congress. Second, the declaration allows weapons manufacturer Raytheon to assemble parts in Saudi Arabia, rather than in the U.S., and State Department official Charles Faulkner, who may have played a leading role in the emergency declaration, was formerly a lobbyist for Raytheon. American Oversight has filed a number of FOIA requests with the Departments of State, Justice and Defense, seeking answers to questions about whether Faulkner had promoted policies that could benefit his former client, and about how the administration believes it can legally make such decisions without seeking the approval of Congress.