Countdown to Oversight in 2019

In a year that began with the administration shutting down its “voter fraud” commission and ended with the president shutting down the government over an ill-conceived border wall, American Oversight submitted more than 1,000 Freedom of Information Act requests, filed 56 lawsuits, and published tens of thousands of pages of documents.

The new year brings with it a new Congress prepared to aggressively investigate the administration, and American Oversight will be continuing its work to uncover governmental misconduct, scrutinize conflicts of interest, and expose corruption. As 2018 comes to a close, here’s a look back at what was uncovered and a look ahead at what comes next.

… 10: The Questionable Voter Fraud Commission

In early January, weeks after a federal judge ordered the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to release records to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a commission member, President Trump disbanded the commission. American Oversight, which was representing Dunlap in his lawsuit, didn’t stop fighting for the records — and months later Dunlap finally received them. They revealed that contrary to what Trump and Commission Vice Chair Kris Kobach had claimed, no evidence of widespread voter fraud had been found.

… 9: Luxurious Office Renovations at Taxpayer Expense

A $31,000 dining set for Housing Secretary Ben Carson. A secret $43,000 phone booth for former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Bear and bison heads around the office of outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. American Oversight’s suite of FOIA requests seeking records of money spent on office renovations, sent to agencies across the administration, revealed the true cost of Pruitt’s phone booth and caught Carson in a lie about his pricey new furniture. According to emails we received the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the exposure of Carson’s spending may have deterred agency officials< from similar lavish spending sprees.

…8: Unqualified and Unethical Political Appointees

Loyalty over qualifications, and ethical conflicts over experience — American Oversight has been investigating political appointees across the government since the beginning of the Trump administration. Records have revealed that political loyalists with limited or no relevant political experience got top jobs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and we’ve continued to dig out the resumes of political appointees, from the White House climate adviser with no experience in energy to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s “strong computer skills.” When officials have any relevant experience, it is often because they used to work for the industries they are now tasked with regulating.

…7: But Her Emails, Too

After the 2016 presidential campaign, you’d think they would have learned. In 2017, American Oversight filed FOIA requests and eventually a lawsuit seeking emails between Ivanka Trump and senior officials at five federal agencies, leading to the discovery of several emails Ivanka Trump had sent from her personal email system using the address [email protected] In November 2018, the Washington Post reported that our lawsuit had triggered a White House investigation of Ivanka Trump’s private email use, an investigation that ultimately found the first daughter used personal email on hundreds of occasions while working in the White House.

…6: Federal Employees’ Political Speech

Federal employees have received their share of mixed messages when it comes to the Hatch Act, which places restrictions on their political activity. Recent guidance from the Office of the Special Counsel (not Robert Mueller) bans employees from discussing the “resistance” or presidential impeachment (though under unclear circumstances), but apparently this abundance of caution doesn’t apply to certain members of the administration. American Oversight called for an investigation after news broke that Acting Attorney General Whitaker had accepted campaign contributions while working as a federal employee, and the OSC confirmed that it had opened a case file to look into it. And earlier in 2018, we called for an investigation of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who promoted the Trump campaign while appearing in his official capacity.

…5: Improper Influence and Questionable Family Involvement

Throughout the year, our FOIA requests and investigations at dozens of federal agencies uncovered numerous examples of misconduct, conflicts of interest, and questionable behavior — from Ben Carson allowing his son to play a key role at HUD to Interior Secretary Zinke’s wife joining him on travel and arranging private VIP tours of national parks. American Oversight has also been investigating the influence that three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club have on policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

…4: Treatment of Immigrants

Trump’s use of immigration as a rhetorical tool to inflame his political base began during his presidential campaign and has seeped into policy. The administration officially ended its zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy this past summer, but news reports indicate that families have still been separated at the border and that minors have died in custody. American Oversight’s investigation of the administration’s family-separation policy is ongoing, with multiple lawsuits still open. We’re also investigating the extent to which the president politicized the so-called migrant caravan in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, and have requested records related to the use of tear gas on migrants at the border in late November.

…3: Condemning Racism (Or Not)

In the fall of 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted out a photo of arrested undocumented immigrants alongside the hashtag #CatchOfTheDay — a phrase, of course, usually reserved for fish. American Oversight immediately filed a FOIA request for records of the hashtag’s use, eventually filing a lawsuit. Documents we obtained in 2018 include an email, sent by a CBP media officer just a couple of days after our FOIA request, reminding employees to treat people “with dignity and respect.” But emails we received in November 2018 showed that when a diversity officer at the VA wanted to issue a statement condemning the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, she was blocked by a senior Trump administration appointee.

…2: Politicization of the Justice Department

The president has repeatedly called for the DOJ and the FBI to investigate his perceived enemies, and there are serious concerns about attempts to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Acting Attorney General Whitaker has refused to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, despite publicly criticizing the investigation in the past, and Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, has also made statements in opposition to the investigation. An American Oversight FOIA request uncovered that Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, who has ties to a large Russian bank, had recused himself from the investigation, and we’re still investigating ethics determinations and past communications for Whitaker and Barr.

…1: Auditing the Border Wall

The year 2018 is ending with a government shutdown, as Trump refused to sign any spending bill that didn’t grant $5 billion for his promised wall along the southern border. One problem (among many): The administration has made next to none of the necessary preparations — legal, diplomatic, logistic — for building a wall. Our “Audit the Wall” report reveals his calls for a wall (and his political hostage-taking) to be little more than another rhetorical tool used to rally his political base.

… Oversight in 2019

Many of these investigations aren’t going away in the new year. We’re still looking at how cabinet officials spend taxpayer dollars; who’s getting plum political appointments despite inexperience or financial conflicts; who used personal email for government business; what went into the development of the administration’s immigration policies; and who can be involved in the Mueller investigation.

The difference in 2019, of course, is that there is a new Congress and a new House majority that plans to use its subpoena power to obtain this information as well. Incoming House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings will be demanding information about the administration’s family-separation policy as well as records of the misuse of government aircraft or using chartered jets at taxpayer expense. Congress also has its investigative sights on personal email use among White House officials, the Mar-a-Lago crowd’s influence on the VA, and FEMA’s botched response to hurricanes

With our Parallel Investigations initiative, American Oversight is ready to file FOIA requests that mirror what Congress is asking for, and we’re prepared to go to court to prevent the administration from ducking accountability.

Related Blog Posts

November 15, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment Inquiry Goes Public

Bartow County - Georgia, Carroll County - Georgia, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Council on Environmental Quality, Dallas County - Texas, Decatur County - Georgia, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of Veterans Affairs, Florida House of Representatives, Georgia Secretary of State, Harris County - Texas, Lowndes County - Georgia, Paulding County - Georgia, Travis County - Texas
News
November 13, 2019

American Oversight Sues DHS for Cuccinelli Records

Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
November 8, 2019

News Roundup: Ukraine-Related Documents, Hurdles for Asylum-Seekers, and Chad Wolf’s Involvement in Family Separation

Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida Office of the Governor, Office of Information Policy, Office of Legal Counsel, Office of Management and Budget
News
October 11, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment, Obstruction, and More Questions about Rick Perry

Administration for Children and Families, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security
News
October 9, 2019

Early Trump Administration — and McAleenan — Communications About Immigration Policy

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
News
October 4, 2019

News Roundup: The Public Needs Answers

Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State
Investigation Update
News
September 13, 2019

News Roundup: Photos of Detention Centers for Migrant Children; Stephen Miller’s Hand in Immigration Policy

Administration for Children and Families, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Georgia Office of the Governor, Georgia Secretary of State, HHS Office of Inspector General, Small Business Administration
News
September 8, 2019

Photos from Inside Detention Centers for Migrant Children

Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Office of Inspector General
Investigation Update
August 30, 2019

News Roundup: Remain in Mexico’s Harmful Effects and Trump’s Dangerous Impatience

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Geological Survey
News
July 30, 2019

American Oversight Sues Justice Department over Brooklyn Jail’s Inhumane Winter Conditions

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
July 19, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating the Fallout from Spring’s DHS Shakeup

Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Florida Office of the Governor, General Services Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tennessee Valley Authority
News
June 27, 2019

The Department of Homeland Security Doesn’t Know Where Trump Got Those Immigration Numbers, Either

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
June 18, 2019

Lawsuit Seeks Records to Shed Light on Deaths of Detainees in DHS Custody

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
News
June 13, 2019

Documents Reveal New Information About 2017 CBP Media Efforts

Customs and Border Protection
Investigation Update
May 24, 2019

News Roundup: Congressional Hearing Shows and No-Shows

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Taylor County - Florida
News
May 17, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating State-Level Threats to Democracy

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida, Georgia, Texas
News
April 24, 2019

American Oversight and ACLU of Massachusetts Sue DHS for Border Security Plan

Investigation Update
March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

News
February 15, 2019

News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice
News
February 1, 2019

News Roundup: More Troops at the Border Means More Questions for the Administration

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security
News
January 31, 2019

Lawsuit Seeks Emails of DOJ Official Involved in Controversial Civil Rights Decisions

Department of Justice
News
January 24, 2019

Checking Up on Trump’s Claims that Military Experts Told Him to Ban Transgender Troops

Department of Defense
Investigation Update
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration
News
January 11, 2019

News Roundup: The Administration’s Misleading Claims About Terrorists at the Southern Border

Department of Homeland Security
News
December 12, 2018

Audit the Wall: No Plans, Funding or Timeline — And No Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State
Investigation Update
December 5, 2018

American Oversight Sues Administration for Records of Family-Separation Policy

Administration for Children and Families, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, HHS Office of Inspector General, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Investigation Update
January 12, 2018

Justice Department Staffing Up For Its Ill-Conceived Affirmative Action Investigation

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
January 2, 2018

New FOIAs Seek Records of Civil Rights Investigations at Department of Education

Department of Education
News
December 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOD to Uncover Truth Behind Trump’s Transgender Ban

Department of Defense
Investigation Update
October 4, 2017

DOJ Confirms Harvard Affirmative Action Investigation

Department of Justice
News
September 7, 2017

DACA Announcement Reflects Lack of Seriousness About the Law

Department of Justice
News