Political Appointees Moving to Permanent Positions: With each potential administration come new worries over “burrowing in” — in which political appointees are converted to career status — and the potential for those appointees to stymie the efforts of the next administration. In February 2018, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) made changes to its guidance on how political appointees can convert to permanent positions, requiring political appointees to gain OPM permission if seeking a career civil service position. This month, the White House installed a partisan loyalist as the new head of OPM, and we launched our investigation into burrowing, filing FOIA requests with multiple agencies for records reflecting requests made under the new guidance, and for the ethics documents of appointees moving to a career status position.
Federal Response to Portland Protests: Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is sending more federal agents to Portland, Ore., as concerns rise over the excessive use of force against protesters. Law enforcement has sometimes responded to demonstrators with violence, including using rubber bullets and pepper spray, prompting both the Oregon attorney general and the ACLU of Oregon to sue the federal government for alleged civil rights violations. We filed records requests with the Portland mayor’s office, police bureau, and Independent Police Review Division, as well as with the Oregon Governor’s Office, for related communications with various federal agencies. We also filed FOIA requests with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for whistleblower complaints about federal agents’ conduct in Portland, and for Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf’s communications with the Portland Police Association, in light of reports that he met with the group on July 16.
The Designation of ‘Antifa’ as a Terrorist Group: In May, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he intended to designate “antifa” as a terrorist organization. The same day, Attorney General William Barr issued a statement against the “violence instigated and carried out by Antifa.” Questions have since been raised about how the administration would carry out this designation, since antifa — short for anti-fascist — is generally considered to be a term describing a set of political beliefs, rather than a single organization. We filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department for records, including directives, memos, and analysis, regarding the designation of domestic anti-fascist movements as terrorist organizations.
Coronavirus Testing and Prevention in Detention Centers and Jails: People held in correctional facilities and immigration detention centers are particularly vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 because of close quarters and limited access to adequate health care. We filed a FOIA request with DHS for data reflecting the number of minors who have been tested for Covid-19 within agency-run detention centers. We also sent records requests to the New York State governor’s office and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for records related to the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in the state’s correctional facilities.
Coronavirus-Related Abortion Ban in Oklahoma: In March, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order related to mitigating the spread of Covid-19 that included a temporary ban on “any type of abortion services” except in cases of serious health risks to the pregnant woman. Stitt attempted to extend the temporary ban in April, but the move was struck down by a federal court. We filed records requests with the governor’s office and the Oklahoma attorney general for communications about the temporary ban.
Pandemic Aid to North Korea: New reporting indicates that in March, Trump sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, offering assistance in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, the Trump administration was simultaneously downplaying the threat of the disease to the American public. We filed FOIA requests with multiple federal agencies for records about the plans to assist North Korea.
UnitedHealth Contract for Disbursement of CARES Act Funds: In April, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract to UnitedHealth Group, a large insurance company, to dispense $30 billion in CARES Act recovery funds to health-care providers across the country. Criticism has since been raised over UnitedHealth’s ties to White House official Stephen Parente, who played a significant role in making decisions about the disbursement of recovery funds. We filed FOIA requests with HHS for high-ranking officials’ communications with UnitedHealth, and for senior officials’ recent calendar entries.
CARES Act Funds for State Election Preparation: State governments have received recovery funds from a $400 million program intended to help them prepare for the 2020 election. We sent requests to Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Wisconsin for records showing how they are distributing these funds.
U.S. Secret Service Health Measures: According to recent news reports, several U.S. Secret Service officers have fallen ill with Covid-19 after traveling for Trump campaign events or preparing for official visits. In June, dozens of officers were told to self-quarantine after two service members who worked Trump’s infamous Tulsa rally tested positive. And in early July, it was reported that eight officers remained in a Phoenix hotel after coming down with coronavirus-like symptoms while preparing for a visit from Vice President Mike Pence to Arizona (a trip he canceled). We filed FOIA requests to the Secret Service for data and assessments regarding efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among officers.
Trump’s Latest Census Gambit: Last week, Trump issued a memo to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census tally that is used to determine congressional district apportionment — a move now being challenged as unconstitutional in multiple lawsuits. As part of our investigation into political interference in the 2020 census, we filed FOIA requests to the Justice Department for any legal analysis regarding this change in policy.
State-Level Fraud Forces and Voter Intimidation: As the president and his allies continue to make unsupported claims about increased use of absentee ballots leading to dangerous levels of voter fraud, multiple states have created task forces purportedly to deal with the alleged threat. We’re investigating how those task forces may use such concerns to discourage democratic participation, and filed requests in multiple states for related records and communications. We also asked state offices in Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin for records regarding the recruitment of poll watchers.
Former ICE Prosecutor Is Now Chief Immigration Judge: Earlier this month, Tracy Short was appointed chief immigration judge in the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Previously, Short worked as a prosecutor at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leading his predecessor to raise concerns about risks to the office’s impartiality. We filed FOIA requests for Short’s communications with White House official Stephen Miller and for memos or directives signed by Short.
Department of Defense Appointments: News reporting indicates that the Trump administration is working to place Trump loyalists in political appointments. Some examples of these efforts are the recent, controversial nominations of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Michael Cutrone, and Anthony Tata to high-ranking positions at the Pentagon. We filed several FOIA requests to the Defense Department for those appointees’ communications and calendars.
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