In the News: Flights at Taxpayer Expense, Zinke’s Ethics Investigations, and the FBI Headquarters Project

American Oversight uncovers documents that drive accountability and help journalists further investigate corruption in the Trump administration. Over the past few weeks our litigation has exposed flight records, financial conflicts of interest, and set the stage for parallel congressional oversight in 2019.

Rex Tillerson Flight Records

We obtained former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s flight records, which show that he traveled to his home state of Texas at least five times. Citing those documents and an analysis by our Investigations team, the Huffington Post reported that Tillerson spent upwards of $1 million dollars on chartered flights at government expense.

The article notes that Tillerson often traveled for personal reasons, stating that:  

Tillerson’s May 2017 trip from Texas to Colorado to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland cost taxpayers $82,212. The return leg of his June 2017 trip to Texas cost $56,218.50.

The aircraft used on those two trips cost $10,075 per hour to operate, a figure the Defense Department confirmed to the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. American Oversight used that cost per hour to estimate the cost of the 13 trips that did not include cost information. Based on those calculations, the watchdog group estimates Tillerson spent at least $1,039,136 of taxpayer money flying on military jets.

American Oversight also obtained FAA records of Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao’s travel. Politico then reported that Secretary Chao spent upwards of $94,000 on travel on government planes.

See our complete investigation into Trump administration travel at taxpayer expense — including records of former EPA Administrator Pruitt’s first-class travel and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s taxpayer-funded travel to see the eclipse with his wife.

Trump Influence on the FBI Headquarters Project:

Last week, American Oversight filed five lawsuits against the Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), General Services Administration (GSA), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to uncover documents likely to be targets of congressional hearings. We want to know the details of President Trump’s interference in the plans for the FBI Headquarters, which is located near the Trump International Hotel.

This is our first set of lawsuits filed as part of our Parallel Investigations Initiative, where we use FOIA and litigation to force accountability by mirroring congressional investigations. This is one of many issues that could become targets of congressional inquiries if either the House or Senate change hands in the upcoming election, and we’re already working to expose the paper trail.

Government Executive reported on the sudden change to the FBI Headquarters Plan.

Separately, the story behind the Trump administration’s handling of the FBI headquarters will be among the top priorities in the coming months for American Oversight, a nonprofit legal group that focuses on agency transparency. At a Wednesday briefing with reporters, the group’s leaders said they have been actively filing FOIA requests for documents on the canceled move.

American Oversight’s Plans for Parallel Oversight

NPR’s Morning Edition reported on the potential surge in congressional hearings and subpoenas following midterm elections, and they highlighted American Oversight’s plans to go to court and force accountability by filing requests that coincide with issues that Congress is also likely to investigate if the House or Senate change partisan control in November.

Even with subpoena power, Democrats could expect fights with the administration, which routinely seeks to withhold documents the committee wants to see. But there’s a workaround: Freedom of Information Act requests by friendly nonprofit groups. Conservative watchdog groups honed the technique during the Obama administration.

“It’s actually very difficult to enforce a congressional subpoena in court,” said Austin Evers, executive director of the progressive group American Oversight. “In contrast, [with] a Freedom of Information Act request, which we could file, we can go to court very easily, and force agencies to be transparent.”

For the past six months, American Oversight has been actively filing FOIA requests that coincide with congressional document requests on issues like changes to Title X family planning policies, industry influence at the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, and the details of a senior officials’ role in implementing the Zero-Tolerance Family Separation Policy. We’ve filed a total of 315 FOIAs that overlap with congressional information requests. See those FOIAs and more here.

Secretary Ross’ Conflicts of Interest

A few months ago, it was reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to divest from stocks associated with his former business–ignoring previous ethics advice.

We obtained 1,800 pages of Wilbur Ross’ calendar, which detail meetings he had with steel, rail, sugar, and energy industry insiders as well as groups with ties to WL Ross & Co. See what we found here.

Forbes reported that Ross met with Chevron and Boeing at a point when his wife apparently had a $250k stake in Chevron and over $2 million in Boeing.

New evidence suggests that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross put himself at risk of violating a criminal conflict-of-interest law by discussing business matters with Chevron executives — while his wife apparently owned a stake in the company worth more than $250,000.

On March 22, 2017, Ross hosted Chevron’s then-CEO John Watson, along with two other executives, in his conference room, according to the commerce secretary’s calendar. Forbes first reported the existence of the meeting in July, but both the Department of Commerce and Chevron refused to say what was discussed during the sit-down. After a legal battle that lasted more than six months, however, the government watchdog group American Oversight released a detailed version of Ross’ calendar last week, which shows that the agenda centered on oil and gas developments, tax reform and trade issues.

See the full calendars here.

Secretary Perdue’s Ties to his Home State

American Oversight obtained Secretary Perdue’s calendars, which revealed that the Secretary maintained ties to old political allies in Georgia and flew home on many occasions at taxpayer expense. We filed a follow-up FOIA to find out if he violated his ethics requirements.

A suit from [American Oversight] forced the disclosure of documents that detail how Perdue has tried to balance his Washington duties with his knack for wading into Georgia politics.

The 338 pages of detailed schedules that American Oversight obtained show how Perdue juggled meetings with farm and industry groups and White House sitdowns during his first half-year in Washington while also keeping a close eye on the homefront. He traveled back to Georgia 13 times between late April and November 2017, much of it on the taxpayers’ dime.

Interior Department Tries to Replace IG Amid Zinke Report:

Amid reports suggesting that the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior (DOI) would soon release a report critical of Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration appears to have attempted to replace the existing DOI watchdog with a political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

American Oversight’s ongoing investigation into the backgrounds of Trump administration political appointees meant that we already had obtained and posted the resume of the designated replacement Inspector General — showing that she had no relevant experience for that job.

NBC News reported that:

The White House appears to be replacing the agency watchdog at the Interior Department who is in the midst of two investigations into Secretary Ryan Zinke, drawing criticism from government oversight groups.

In an internal email sent last Friday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced to his staff that after just seven months at the agency, the assistant secretary for administration, Suzanne Israel Tufts, was moving over to the Interior Department to be the acting inspector general. Acting inspectors general do not need Senate confirmation.


Tufts’ previous experience includes working for the Trump campaign recruiting and training lawyers deployed by the Republican National Lawyers Association to watch the polls on Election Day 2016, according to her resume obtained through a freedom of information request by the American Oversight watchdog group and shared with NBC News. Tufts also noted on her resume that she had experience “staffing events hosted by President Donald J. Trump for Victory.”

The Trump administration quickly reversed course and Tufts ultimately announced her intent to resign. We’re continuing to investigate questionable appointees across the administration with ties to President Trump’s campaign — as well as the unethical behavior of Secretary Zinke.

Zinke is now facing at least a half a dozen ethics investigations and has even been referred to the Department of Justice for further review.