News Roundup: Casinos and Questions

Donald Trump and Matt Schlapp in 2018 (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

President Donald Trump’s Twitter habits frequently lead to raised eyebrows, but this week the president took to his favorite medium to voice opposition to an obscure piece of legislation working its way through Congress.

The topic of the bill — granting rights to a American Indian tribe that wants to build a casino in Massachusetts — was seemingly random, but as the Daily Beast reported, at least two Trump-connected firms were hired to lobby for the company that owns a casino that would compete with the one the tribe wants to build. One of those firms, Cove Strategies, is run by Matt Schlapp, an adviser to the president whose wife is a White House communications official.

Schlapp has been lobbying Congress and the White House since January, and has publicly criticized the legislation that would grant the rights to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. In fact, he had tweeted about the bill just an hour before Trump sent his tweet. The bill was eventually pulled from the floor.

This isn’t the first time Trump’s casino connections have spurred “some swampy questions.” This week, American Oversight filed two lawsuits to shed light on the influence two casino magnates — and Trump campaign megadonors — may have exerted on the administration to achieve decisions that were more supportive of their businesses than Trump was with the Massachusetts casino.

In November, we submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the Treasury, State and Commerce Departments for communications with or about Sheldon Adelson or his casinos, and for records related to meetings he had with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Jared Kushner, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. And in February, we submitted FOIA requests to the Labor and Justice Departments for communications officials had with Steve Wynn, the former CEO of Wynn Resorts, or with the White House about Wynn. Earlier this year, American Oversight had uncovered emails showing that in 2017, the White House had asked to meet with the Justice Department official who was working on litigation involving Wynn, who had for years been fighting an Obama administration rule prohibiting companies like his casinos from pooling tips among all employees, including supervisors. (In late 2017, a few months after the meeting was requested, the Trump administration revised the regulation to be friendlier to employers.)

The lawsuits came after the departments’ failed to provide records in response to the requests, and in March we also sued the Justice Department for records that could shed light on whether Adelson or other outside influences played a role in the sudden reversal of a 2011 legal opinion on online gambling.

Gene Hamilton’s Communications: This week, we filed a lawsuit against the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security regarding two FOIA requests we sent in October 2018, seeking the external emails of DOJ official Gene Hamilton. Hamilton had previously worked at DHS, and was involved in anti-immigrant policies including travel bans, changes to refugee policies, and the dismantling of the Temporary Protected Status program. On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee called on Hamilton to appear before Congress to address his involvement in the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. (We’ve also been investigating Justice Department involvement in that issue.)

Hurricane Response: The House Oversight Committee has demanded documents related to the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. American Oversight has been investigating the administration’s failed response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma, including reports that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had mismanaged contracts to provide food and medicine, and we obtained records related to the contractor that only provided 50,000 meals out of the 30 million it was supposed to deliver to Puerto Rico.

Remain in Mexico: A federal court ruled this week that the Trump administration may continue requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as they await court proceedings in the United States under the Migration Protection Protocols, which was instituted at the beginning of the year. We filed FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to shed light on the implementation of this policy.

Mueller Report: We filed a new set of FOIA requests to the Justice Department related to the Mueller report. We’re looking for communications involving political appointees and Attorney General William Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and the offices of Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham or Charles Grassley — and any of the president’s personal attorneys. We’ve also asked for information about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s dissatisfaction with Barr’s summary of the report, including notes from the phone call between the two in which Mueller expressed his concern about the attorney general’s public representations about the report’s conclusions.

Climate Change Reports: In November 2018, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released two reports related to climate change. The Fourth National Climate Assessment laid out the severe environmental, economic, and health threats posed by climate change, and the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report focused on ways countries could grow their economies without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration has consistently downplayed the seriousness of climate change, and American Oversight is investigating the rollout of and response to these reports at the EPA and the Commerce, Energy, Interior and Agriculture Departments.

Power Plant Rules: The EPA has proposed a change to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that would make it easier for power plants to challenge the rules implementation. The agency itself has estimated that the standards prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, but its reasoning for the change is that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants because of the cost it places on power plants. We’ve sent the agency a FOIA request for communications between political appointees in the Office of Air and Radiation and a number of energy industry groups.

Religious Discrimination in Adoptions: The Trump administration has been making it easier for faith-based foster care agencies that receive federal money to receive religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, allowing groups that may deny adoptions to same-sex couples or non-Christians. In January, the Department of Health and Human Services granted South Carolina’s faith-based agencies an exemption, and Texas has also requested one. In May, Shannon Royce, the director of the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, encouraged attendees at an event to file for waivers if they believe that current law “burdens” their religious expression. We’re asking HHS for Royce’s and other officials’ external communications.

Trump Chooses Shanahan: Trump announced this week that he plans to nominate Patrick Shanahan, the current acting secretary, as Defense Secretary. We’ve been investigating whether the acting secretary’s ties to Boeing, where he worked for more than 30 years, may have given the company undue influence at the Pentagon.

Thanking Public Servants: We’re coming to the end of Public Service Recognition Week. We’re grateful to the FOIA officers across the government who work to ensure transparency and provide the American people with a window into their government.