News Round-up: Ghosts of Special Counsel Investigations Past and Present

President Trump’s nomination of former Attorney General William Barr to again serve as the head of the Justice Department has worried many who are concerned with protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Besides his recent criticism of the investigation, Barr’s reported desire while working in the first Bush administration to fire the independent prosecutor investigating the Iran-Control scandal suggests that Barr could work to undermine Mueller’s probe.

On Thursday, American Oversight requested information about DOJ determinations regarding whether Barr would be allowed to be involved in overseeing the Mueller investigation, and asked for records from his previous tenure as attorney general related to the Iran-Contra scandal and his recommendations to President George H.W. Bush that he pardon the officials indicted in that investigation.

According to the Washington Post, Barr had “an itchy finger” to fire Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh in 1992, a month before Bush pardoned six officials involved in the scandal. And just this week, news broke that Barr had sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department in June that heavily criticized the Mueller investigation. The same Wall Street Journal report also said that “senior department ethics officials had determined Mr. Barr’s memo wouldn’t pose a conflict to his appointment” as attorney general.

Meanwhile, a senior ethics attorney at the Justice Department advised Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — advice Whitaker reportedly is choosing to ignore on the recommendation of his political advisers. Whitaker has publicly criticized the investigation, including in a CNN op-ed, and while he sought recusal advice from a team of hand-selected officials, he never asked for a formal ethics determination.

Following the news of this irregular decision, American Oversight issued FOIA requests for communications with and within this team of advisers and records related to Whitaker’s potential recusal from the Mueller investigation.

Even amid a possible impending shutdown and a startling cabinet shake-up, American Oversight is continuing its investigations and holding the administration accountable. Here’s what else has been going on this week:

  • Ryan Zinke is going to be leaving his post as secretary of the interior right before the new Congress begins. He may have resigned, but our investigation into his unethical leadership isn’t over. Before his announcement last weekend, Zinke had issued a statement via Twitter referring to Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s past struggles with alcoholism, claiming Grijalva had used tax dollars to cover up his drinking. Grijalva was cleared of those allegations by the House Ethics Committee, and American Oversight wants to know what sort of DOI time and resources Zinke used to craft that statement.
  • We still have a number of other questions for the outgoing secretary, including information about Zinke’s ties to Halliburton, the $300 million contract granted to a tiny Montana-based company, and possible politically motivated employee reassignments. We’ve already started investigating his likely replacement, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a formal lobbyist for the energy industry, and not a moment too soon: Interior put forth proposals on Thursday that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after decades of environmental protections.
  • In a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced tough (and not so tough) questions about the administration’s family-separation policy. American Oversight is suing the administration for records of the development and implementation of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy.
  • The congressional effort to avert a government shutdown over Trump’s demand for border-wall funding has continued into the end of the week. It’s worth reminding everyone that, despite the president’s insistence on $5 billion for his wall, his administration hasn’t done the necessary preparations to even start to build it.
  • The day after two different courts ruled against Trump administration policies limiting the ability of immigrants to apply for asylum, the administration announced that asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border would be required to wait in Mexico for a ruling on their case. American Oversight launched an investigation this week of Trump’s politicization of the so-called migrant caravan — the group of migrants who journeyed from Central America to seek asylum in the United States — in the run-up to the November midterm elections. The investigation also looks into the use of tear gas against the migrants, including women and children, in late November, a week after Trump authorized the use of “lethal force” against them.
  • In September, a federal judge ruled that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempts to weaken the Obama-era borrower defense rule, which forgives loans for students whose schools closed or defrauded them, were illegal. A recent Department of Education Office of Inspector General report found a number of problems with the department’s processing of loan-forgiveness requests, and American Oversight has submitted multiple FOIA requests to learn more about the department’s efforts to undermine the borrower defense rule and its improper use of Social Security Administration data. We also filed a FOIA for records related to the questionable appointment of a former dean of the for-profit Devry University to lead fraud enforcement at the Department of Education.
  • DeVos’ frequent siding with for-profit institutions over students makes her 2018 financial disclosure form, which was finally released this month after long delay, all the more worrisome. American Oversight, the National Student Legal Defense Network and the Revolving Door project sent a letter to DeVos seeking answers to multiple questions, including whether any of her current financial holdings involve for-profit schools.
  • On Thursday, American Oversight filed a lawsuit with the Service Employees International Union, which is suing for more information about a proposed rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and records of communications between conservative groups and CMS or the Department of Health and Human Services. The rule would prohibit home-care workers who are paid by Medicaid from having union dues deducted from their paychecks.
  • Last month, the Office of the Special Counsel (not Robert Mueller) issued troubling new Hatch Act guidance for federal employees. The guidance, which could have a chilling effect on the speech of employees, was less than clear in its application: The OSC said that employees could state an “opinion about whether the president should be impeached,” but can’t engage in “advocacy for or against impeachment. Plus, supporting the “Resistance” was not allowed, but praising “MAGAnomics” was apparently fine. American Oversight filed FOIAs with multiple agencies seeking communications that contain pro-Trump phrases like “MAGA” or “build the wall.”