News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

The Supreme Court decided today that it would review the issue of the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

A federal judge in New York City ruled in January that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to include the question — which could discourage some people from filling out the survey — was unlawful. Because the census needs to be ready this summer, the issue was fast-tracked for Supreme Court review.

During congressional testimony in early 2018, Ross said that the Department of Justice had requested his department include a citizenship question, but documents indicate that Ross himself actively pursued its inclusion. American Oversight obtained Ross’ 2017 calendars, which show that he had numerous meetings related to the census, and in October we joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in filing a lawsuit to uncover records related to the Justice Department’s role in the decision.

Two weeks ago, American Oversight expanded its investigation of the politicization of the Justice Department by suing for the emails of Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, who has been at the center of many controversial civil rights decisions, including the citizenship question — he appears to have ghostwritten the DOJ letter to the Census Bureau that claimed the addition of the question was vital for the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s what else has happened this week:

  • President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to build the border wall, for which he failed to get the funding he wanted in the latest spending bill. The legitimacy of such a declaration is heavily questioned, with multiple watchdog organizations promising to challenge it in court. For a situation it now deems to be an emergency, the president’s administration took very few steps to prepare for building the wall during its first year and a half.
  • On Thursday, the Senate confirmed William Barr as U.S. attorney general. We still have active FOIA requests for past communications he had with the Justice Department about his ability to oversee the Mueller investigation, and are seeking records from the last time he was attorney general, when he recommended President George H.W. Bush pardon the officials indicted in the Iran-Contra investigation. And while much of the focus has been on whether he should recuse himself under government ethics rules, less attention has been paid to whether another set of rules could disqualify him from overseeing the special counsel investigation.
  • A top Environmental Protection Agency official announced that she was leaving to form a political advocacy group defending the agency’s deregulatory efforts. In a complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which enforces the federal Hatch Act, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said that the official, Mandy Gunasekara (by the way, we obtained and posted her calendars), violated the law by advocating for Trump’s re-election in her resignation letter. American Oversight has been keeping an eye on potential violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in partisan activity while at work, especially in light of the Trump administration’s mixed messaging on what constitutes political activity. This week, we filed a FOIA request for any final legal advice or analysis provided to employees or agency leadership regarding the application of the Hatch Act.
  • The Hatch Act guidance that OSC released in November — which effectively stated that employees could discuss whether the president should be impeached but could not advocate for or against impeachment — raised questions about whether the Hatch Act could be used to intimidate public servants with views at odds with the current administration, while giving more leeway to those who support it. To find out whether the Hatch Act was being enforced with regard to pro-administration speech, American Oversight sent FOIA requests to the Department of Interior for correspondence containing words and phrases like “MAGA,” “build the wall,” and “Trump Train.”
  • In December, the Education Corporation of America announced that it would be shutting down its 75 for-profit college campuses across the country, leaving thousands of students suddenly wondering how to finish they’ll studies. We want to know more about how the Department of Education is responding to ECA’s closure.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued new policy guidance last year that allows states to implement work requirements for Medicaid, and in January Arizona became the eighth state to receive an approval for a work-requirement waiver. In August 2018, Reps. Elijah Cummings and Raja Krishnamoorthi asked CMS Administrator Seema Verma and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar for information about the impact of such work requirements. They got no response, so now we’ve filed FOIA requests.
  • American Oversight is investigating how the Department of Homeland Security has treated people held in custody, particularly the most vulnerable. There have been reports that transgender and pregnant detainees haven’t received adequate medical attention and have been subject to abuse. And recent deaths of people in custody, including Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender detainee, as well as of children like 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, have raised serious public concern.
  • FEMA Administrator Brock Long, who had been investigated last year for improper use of staff and government vehicles, announced his resignation on Wednesday. Records we obtained show that he continually asked his staff about an expensive office redesign, but the controversy about Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining set ultimately dissuaded Long’s office from pursuing it. American Oversight also sued FEMA to find out more about the administration’s failed responses to Hurricanes Maria and Irma, including mismanaged contracts and a lack of emergency food and fuel provision.
  • In 2018, news reports said that the Department of Labor had suppressed data showing that a proposed rule would cost employees billions of dollars. The proposal was to roll back regulations on how companies could pool employee tips, and according to the reports, Labor officials had convinced Mick Mulvaney, who was then the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to overrule Neomi Rao, then the head of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (Rao has since been nominated by Trump to fill Brett Kavanaugh’s former seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.) We’re asking for communications among OMB, the Labor Department, and Rao, as well as records of all analyses about the proposed rule’s impact.
  • Ballard Partners, the lobbying firm helmed by top Trump campaign fundraiser Brian Ballard, has emerged as one of the most powerful lobbying shops in the Trump era, largely thanks to its connections to the administration. American Oversight wants to know what kind of influence Ballard Partners is wielding, and filed FOIA requests to multiple agencies across the administration for communications between officials and employees or representatives of the firm.
  • A senior HUD official with personal connections to the Trump family thinks American Oversight needs “to get a life,” and that we “can FOIA that.” We know she said this because, well, we FOIA’d it.

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