FOIA In Action: Helping Journalists Expose Questionable Behavior By Trump’s Appointees

American Oversight’s mission is to promote transparency and accountability in government – using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the media to raise public awareness and enforce consequences.

Since opening our doors in March 2017, we’ve filed over 400 FOIA requests and launched several investigations, many of which turned out evidence of unethical and questionable behaviors by those affiliated with the Trump administration. This includes SBA Administrator Linda McMahon’s staff attempting to obscure the fact that she spoke at a Trump hotel, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s use of personal email for government business, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ poor attendance at her job at the Department of Education.

American Oversight also called for an investigation of potential bribery attempts by organizations using Trump properties (see our Defund Trump investigation as well) and we asked the Department of Education’s Inspector General to investigate Secretary DeVos’ frequent days off.

Although many of our FOIAs are filed based on public reporting, our work also helps journalists investigate potential conflicts of interest and hold the government accountable.

Recent documents we obtained from our investigations have in turn supported reporting by journalists at the New York Times, Mother Jones, Newsweek, Reuters, and other outlets.

In one case, the documents showed that Ivanka Trump had continued using her personal email to conduct government business after joining the administration. 
Mother Jones reported on this following a story in Politico revealing that Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, was using private email to communicate with government officials as well. Several other news publications covered this, citing American Oversight’s work. We have continued investigating this. See more here.

Here’s the Email Ivanka Trump Sent From Her Private Account Doing Government Work, September 25th, 2017

The new set of emails show Trump in February discussing a women’s entrepreneurship initiative on her private account with Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon. While Trump did not officially become a federal employee till March, Newsweek reports it’s highly likely she had access to a government email account at the time.

The revelation comes just one day after Politico reported her husband Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, used a private email account to communicate with other White House officials.

During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump slammed Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state and urged that she be prosecuted and locked up for the offense.

One of the biggest ongoing concerns about the Trump presidency is the potential for conflicts of interest that his hotel business presents while he holds a position of power. After Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon spoke at an event at a Trump hotel, we used FOIA to obtain text messages stating that her staff went out of their way to disguise where she was speaking. See our full investigation of conflicts of interest related to Trump properties.

Trump’s Small Business Chief Gave Speech at His Hotel, But Aides Tried to Keep Location Quiet, October 24th, 2017

During the event in September, an SBA staffer whose title is special adviser texted the agency’s deputy press secretary. The messages contained several photos of McMahon speaking, the documents show. In response to the photos, the deputy wrote, “Can you try to get the portrait mode one without the ‘Trump hotel’ sign in it?”

The staffer who sent the photos replied, “I know Trying to avoid it. Will try again.”

The deputy responded, “Lols.” Then the first staffer sent a photo of McMahon without the sign.

At one point, someone texted the deputy, “I’ll tweet with excerpts from speech…and crop the opulence out!” That person’s full name is not visible in the released document, and in the reply to that text, the deputy thanked the person by a name different from the one visible in the other messages. The documents contain the names of two of the staffers involved in the exchange.

The New York Times also reported on documents we obtained of Secretary Betsy DeVos’ calendars which revealed that she has taken significant time off from work, including 11 long weekends, and numerous other partial-days.

Betsy DeVos’s Schedule Shows Focus on Religious and Nontraditional Schools, October 27th, 2017

An examination of Ms. DeVos’s calendar shows that she frequently leaves Washington on what appear to be long weekends, as her work calendar indicates no appointments on certain Fridays or Mondays surrounding these trips to destinations that have included Vero Beach, Fla., Aspen, Colo., and Grand Rapids, Mich. All are places where Ms. DeVos or a member of her family owns a home.

The records show that Ms. DeVos took long weekends on at least 11 occasions, meaning that her work calendar indicates no appointments on at least one workday around the weekend.

See our blog post on this here. For the full picture of just how much DeVos takes off, see our graphic below.

With Congress unwilling to hold the Trump administration accountable, we will continue our work to keep the public informed and shine a light on conflicts of interest wherever we find them.

 

Related Blog Posts

November 8, 2018

American Oversight Sues State Department for Trump Organization, Kushner Companies Records

Department of State
Investigation Update
October 23, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks Details of White House, Trump Organization Involvement in FBI Headquarters Decision

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 3, 2018

Court Rules in Favor of American Oversight in Trump Hotel Lawsuit

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
April 17, 2018

Lawsuit Seeks Scott Pruitt and Nino Perrotta Travel and Security Spending Records

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
April 6, 2018

New: EPA Documents Show Details of Pruitt Office Renovations

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
March 16, 2018

Video: Four Strategies for Holding Trump Accountable

General News
March 13, 2018

One Year of American Oversight

General News
March 9, 2018

New FOIAs: Gun Control, Industry Influences, and Sanctuary Cities

General News
March 9, 2018

American Oversight Sues HHS and CMS for Verma Ethics Records

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Health and Human Services
General News
March 6, 2018

Ethics Watchdog Sues HUD for Emails from Carson Family, Lynne Patton, Trump Organization

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
March 2, 2018

Investigation Update: Defund Trump

Investigation Update
February 27, 2018

American Oversight Sues HUD for Carson Office Renovation Records

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 21, 2018

American Oversight Calls for a HUD IG Investigation into Carson’s Leadership

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 16, 2018

Inside the Documents: Ben Carson Jr’s HUD Emails

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 5, 2018

Sessions, Comey, and Clinton: New FOIAs and Lawsuits Seek Answers

General News
February 1, 2018

New HUD Emails Show Secretary Ben Carson’s Son Taking Role at Agency

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
January 25, 2018

American Oversight Sues GSA Over Changes to MyPillow Contract

General Services Administration
General News
January 19, 2018

Inside the Documents: Ivanka’s Emails, Affirmative Action, and HUD Decisions

General News
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
December 11, 2017

State Department Emails Show How Embassy Websites Promoted Mar-a-Lago

Department of State
Investigation Update
December 7, 2017

FBI Records Call Into Question Sessions’ Claims About Security Clearance Instructions

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
November 22, 2017

More Evidence Flynn Concealed Payments

Department of Defense
Investigation Update
November 16, 2017

American Oversight Statement Regarding DOI Report on Zinke Travel

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
November 8, 2017

American Oversight Statement on Carl Icahn Investigation

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
November 8, 2017

Statement on Interference in AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Department of Justice
General News
November 6, 2017

Over 50 New FOIA Requests Filed Last Week

General News
November 2, 2017

Ivanka Trump Continued Using Personal Account in White House

Department of the Treasury
Investigation Update
October 27, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Investigation of Payments Made to Trump Organization

Investigation Update
October 24, 2017

Texts Show SBA Staff Tried to “Crop the Opulence” from Trump Hotel Event

Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
October 20, 2017

Congressional Russia Investigations Must be Transparent and Credible

General News
October 17, 2017

5 Questions for Attorney General Sessions

Department of Justice
October 10, 2017

New Lawsuit Seeks Answers about Ben Carson’s Management of HUD

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
October 6, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Investigation of Manhattan DA Vance’s Failure to Investigate Fraud at Trump SoHo Development

General News
October 5, 2017

Call for Ethics Investigation of Rep. Luke Messer

Office of Congressional Ethics
General News
October 5, 2017

Lawsuit Seeks Records of Lolita Zinke’s Travel, Role at Department of the Interior

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
October 3, 2017

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Calendars Show Deep Industry Connections

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
September 18, 2017

Austin Evers Discusses Trump Inaugural Funds on MSNBC

General News
September 12, 2017

New Lawsuit: Did the FBI Really Advise Sessions to Omit Russian Contacts?

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
August 28, 2017

Statement on EPA IG Investigation of Pruitt Travel

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
August 4, 2017

Ethics 101: Twitter Ads Follow President Trump to Bedminster, NJ

Investigation Update
July 27, 2017

Call for OSC Investigation of Pruitt Travel to Oklahoma

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
July 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches “Defund Trump” Investigation

Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Investigation Update
July 6, 2017

American Oversight Statement on Resignation of OGE Director Shaub

Office of Government Ethics
General News
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
June 23, 2017

Francisco & the Travel Ban: What We Learned from the DOJ Documents

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
June 7, 2017

Statement on the Release of Lobbyist Ethics Waivers

Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
May 31, 2017

Investigation of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Apparent Presence at ExxonMobil Deal Signing

Department of State
Investigation Update
May 17, 2017

Watchdog Sues to Force Release of Ethics Waivers from Eight Trump Administration Agencies

Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
May 9, 2017

Watchdog Sues to Release Ethics Records of Solicitor General Nominee

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
May 5, 2017

Letter to Senator Grassley: Renew Leadership on Ethics and Transparency

Office of Government Ethics
Investigation Update
May 3, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for Investigation into Pattern of Promoting Trump Family Ventures on Government Websites

Department of State
General News
April 25, 2017

American Oversight Files IG Complaint over State Department Promotion of Mar-A-Lago

Department of State
Investigation Update
April 4, 2017

10 Questions about the Border Wall that Deserve Big, Beautiful Answers

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
March 30, 2017

Analysis: Anti-Lobbying Act & Dan Scavino

White House
General News
March 29, 2017

Call for GSA Inspector General to Review Trump Hotel Lease Decision

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
March 24, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Investigation of Mnuchin for “Batman” Promotion

Department of the Treasury, Office of Government Ethics
General News