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.