Emails Show Political Interference with FOIA and Resistance to Transparency at HUD

Documents obtained by American Oversight show that Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials circumvented standard Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies to deal with politically-sensitive requests related to the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and complained about inquiries from members of Congress.

It’s no secret that transparency is a low priority at HUD, an agency where even the secretary’s calendar—one of the simplest public records with the most power to hold officials accountable—is not posted publicly. We sued HUD in October 2017 for records related to how the agency processes FOIA requests, and the documents we got in response paint a fuller picture of HUD officials’ attempts to dodge transparency.

Kushner-Related Requests Received Special Treatment

On March 1, 2017, Deborah Snowden, HUD’s chief FOIA officer, sent guidance to HUD officials including Region 2 FOIA supervisor Adam Glantz, Region 3 official S. Van Williams, and HUD headquarters FOIA specialist Sandra Wright. Snowden’s email directed officials to route any requests regarding “agency officials, transition, Ben Carson, Trump, etc. and media” through HUD headquarters instead of the regional offices to which the FOIA requests were sent. Snowden then mentioned what was likely the impetus for the new FOIA guidance: HUD headquarters learned that Region 2—which includes New York—and Region 3—which includes Baltimore and Philadelphia—had received FOIA requests about properties tied to Jared Kushner.

The next day, S. Van Williams forwarded Snowden’s email to other Region 3 officials, changing the subject line to specifically refer to a request from the Baltimore Sun. Williams directed the recipients to immediately send documents responsive to the Sun’s FOIA request to HUD headquarters. The request sought documents about 17 properties tied to Kushner.

A couple months later, in May 2017, an official in DC again became involved in processing regional FOIA requests. This time, though, the official was Michael Roman, an opposition researcher who worked in the White House counsel’s office. Roman emailed Region 3 administrator Joseph DeFelice, asking him to send a copy of “the FOIA request.”

Later that day, Region 3 official Nika Edwards emailed DeFelice two reports from March about Baltimore Sun FOIA requests related to Kushner. Edwards said, “FYI: We reported on the Baltimore Sun FOIA request in two weekly reports that Elvis sent to HQ.” Though the March 9 report sent by Edwards stated that the regional office worked closely with headquarters to respond to the Sun’s Kushner-related request, the report noted that any request for “correction for any inaccuracies published by the newspaper” would come from the regional office.

No more emails to or from Roman appear in the documents. Given that just a few hours passed between Roman and Edwards’s emails to DeFelice, though, it appears that Roman—who was not a HUD official—attempted to insert himself into the agency’s process for releasing records about housing properties tied to the president’s family.

HUD Officials Bristled at Congressional Inquiries

It wasn’t just inquiries about Kushner-related properties that received special attention at HUD. In June 2017, Region 3 deputy administrator Richard Ott alerted Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary Nelson Bregón to Congressman Donald McEachin’s inquiries into HUD properties managed by PK Management. Ott described McEachin as “a freshman Congressman who is rather aggressive in his opinions.” Ott also noted that he or Joe [DeFelice] might have to go to Richmond, Virginia—part of McEachin’s district—as it was “on fire with media and press inquiries.”

Ott’s comments were more widely-circulated than he intended: Bregón forwarded Ott’s email to numerous officials in HUD headquarters.

That frustrated Ott, who said to DeFelice and another regional official, “Ack…..I tried to brief up Nelson regarding Richmond, and he forwarded to everyone in order to brief them. Sorry…I didn’t mean to start this spotlight!”

In November 2017, the PK-managed property that had worried McEachin was sold and placed under a different property management company.

HUD’s attempts to interfere with the Baltimore Sun’s request did not stop the newspaper from looking into Kushner-owned properties. Throughout 2017, the Sun published several investigative stories on Kushner’s properties, including an August article that detailed the company’s practice of seeking the arrest of Maryland tenants who owe the company money. The following month, Baltimore-area tenants filed a lawsuit against Kushner’s company. In October, the Maryland Attorney General’s office opened an investigation into Kushner-owned apartments.

The actions detailed in the records we obtained aren’t the first strike against HUD’s transparency policies. Earlier this year, we uncovered emails showing that Secretary Ben Carson had played a role in choosing expensive furniture for his office, even though he tried to hide his involvement. In one of HUD’s most blatant attacks on transparency, Helen Foster, a whistleblower and HUD’s former chief administration officer, said she was demoted for expressing concern about how the agency handled politically-sensitive FOIA requests. As the documents we obtained show, political meddling with FOIA at HUD remains a serious concern. American Oversight is still investigating the agency, including the Carson family’s involvement in HUD business. We’ll continue to fight for documents that shed light on how Carson and other HUD appointees are running the agency.