News Roundup: Congressional Hearing Shows and No-Shows

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

HUD Secretary Ben Carson appeared before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday, and some have concluded that it didn’t go very well.

He confused the term “REO” (real-estate owned) with Oreo cookies; was stumped by a question about OMWI (the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion); attempted to “reclaim his time” (he couldn’t); and defended the administration’s proposal to deny federally subsidized housing to undocumented immigrants. After Buzzfeed reported that HUD had a policy of denying FHA-backed loans to DACA recipients, we requested HUD communications about the policy, including communications with banks.

As one of the longest-serving officials in Trump’s ever-shifting cabinet, Carson’s lack of experience in housing — and ignorance of important aspects of his powerful position — can often slide beneath flashier stories of corruption and misconduct. But our investigation of his tenure at the Department of Housing and Urban Development continues, from questions about his family’s involvement at the agency to the sale of a federally subsidized housing complex tied to President Donald Trump to his lapsed “EnVision Center” initiative.

Also appearing before lawmakers this week was the Department of Education’s principal deputy undersecretary, Diane Auer Jones, who was questioned by House Oversight Committee members about oversight of for-profit colleges and student loans. We filed a lawsuit against the department this week on behalf of the Student Legal Defense Network for records related to the Dream Center, a religious nonprofit that owned financially troubled schools that in 2018 continued accepting tuition payments without telling students that their accreditation status had changed. Prior to joining the administration, Jones was a lobbyist and consultant to for-profit colleges, and her current position gives her the authority to oversee the accreditors of organizations she previously worked for.

Another hearing scheduled for this week in the House Judiciary Committee featured an empty chair — one reserved for former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who was instructed by the White House to defy a congressional subpoena to appear before the committee on Tuesday. McGahn’s refusal to appear is the latest example of the Trump administration’s lack of respect for constitutional checks and balances.

We’ve also been investigating:

Russian Election Hacking: From the 2016 election and through the 2018 midterms, concerns about Russian interference in U.S. elections — especially the 2020 presidential race — have grown. The Mueller report confirmed that Russia was able to “gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government,” though it did not specify which county. American Oversight filed records requests with the FBI, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as with Taylor County in Florida, with the goal of learning more about the effects of Russia’s efforts — and about the safety of future elections.

Transgender Rights: The Department of Health and Human Services has proposed a new rule that could be used to deny health care to transgender patients. The director of the Office for Civil Rights, Roger Severino, said that “discrimination on the basis of sex does not include gender identity of termination of pregnancy.” We filed a lawsuit earlier this year for Severino’s calendars and for his communications with conservative and anti-abortion groups.

Trump’s New ICE Director: Mark Morgan, who was previously the head of U.S. Border Patrol, was nominated earlier this month by the president to be the new director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Earlier this year, Morgan had said during an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show that he could tell whether a child migrant was a gang member by looking “at their eyes.” To learn more about his influences and priorities during his time at Border Patrol, we’ve filed FOIA requests with Customs and Border Protection for his calendars, emails, and communications about family separation and Trump’s border wall.

Frank Luntz’s Influence: Documents obtained by American Oversight show that Republican pollster and political strategist Luntz has met with multiple cabinet members, and according to the New York Times donated a two-day media training to OMB Director and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Luntz’s friendship with Mulvaney has reportedly helped transform him from an early critic of Trump to a White House insider. We’re asking for records that could shed light on what sort of advice Luntz is giving to agencies, and whether taxpayer money has been spent on his services.

Rudy Giuliani’s Canceled Ukraine Trip: On May 9, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani announced that he would travel to Ukraine to urge the government to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 political opponent. Giuliani’s defense? “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation.” Before his announcement of his trip, which was canceled after widespread criticism, the State Department recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who had been under attack in conservative media for purportedly criticizing Trump in private conversations. We filed FOIA requests to uncover how much Trump’s political interests are influencing U.S. policy in Ukraine.

What Is Trump Talking About? When the president tweeted that “the cost of illegal immigration so far this year is $18,959,495,168,” and that “[t]here are at least 25,772,342 illegal aliens … in our Country,” where did he get those numbers? And when he said that migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border leave behind “prayer rugs,” or that Border Patrol officers frequently find women, bound and with tape over their mouths, being smuggled, what was he basing those claims on? We’ve asked DHS for any records related to those claims.

Domestic Terrorism: A senior FBI counterterrorism official said on Thursday that the agency has seen a significant rise in the number of white supremacist domestic terrorism cases in recent months. We have a number of active FOIA requests on the issue, and just this week filed another request with DHS about the creation of a new Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention. Not much has been made public about this new office — we want to find out more.

Influence at FDA: We’re asking the Food and Drug Administration for the communications of Senior Adviser Paul Howard, who joined the administration in 2017. Howard has advocated for deregulation in health care, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and more, and has oversight responsibilities for those very industries.

Consent Decrees: A number of cities with police departments accused of civil rights abuses have made agreements with the Justice Department, called consent decrees, allowing the federal government to oversee reform. But on November 8, 2018 — his last day as attorney general — Jeff Sessions limited the use of consent decrees with state and local governments. We’re asking for Justice Department communications with police organizations that have been publicly resistant to reforms.

Don’t Worry, It Was “Limited”: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sometimes used personal email accounts for government business without saving the messages properly, reported the Education Department’s inspector general on Monday. The internal watchdog said such instances were “limited,” and at this point — despite Hillary Clinton’s email use being a major theme of Trump’s 2016 campaign — we really shouldn’t be surprised by Trump administration appointees forgetting to be concerned about such lax practices.

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