As stirring protests against police brutality gripped the nation’s attention and as the coronavirus continued its tragic spread through multiple states, Georgia held its primary election on Tuesday. And it was, in a word, a disaster.
Long lines and hours-long waits, broken or missing voting machines, and confusion and chaos painted a picture not just of a state unprepared for a high-turnout November presidential election, but of a country beset by widespread disenfranchisement, especially of voters of color. And the familiar canard that voter fraud presents a greater risk to free and fair elections than does the conspicuous voter suppression occurring across the U.S. has been boosted in recent weeks by President Donald Trump’s attacks on the prospect of increased access to absentee voting.
As states consider safe alternatives to in-person voting, Trump and his supporters, including Attorney General William Barr, have sought to cast doubts on the safety of mail-in voting. Despite multiple studies showing his claims to be completely baseless, the president has said that voting by mail will create “massive fraud and abuse,” and Barr, with no trace of irony, has raised the possibility of foreign governments interfering in the election through the use of mail-in ballots.
Of course, increased access to vote by mail will place additional pressure on an already strained U.S. Postal Service — strained in no small part thanks to the actions of the president, who had threatened to veto the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act if it contained funding for the agency. Last month, American Oversight filed a suite of Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover whether and to what extent the White House is exerting undue political influence over USPS operations, or using the pandemic to interfere with USPS’s ability to facilitate an election that will likely involve more voters sending their ballots through the mail. The administration’s failure to release the requested records prompted us to file a lawsuit on Thursday; you can read more about that here.
Trump isn’t the only one to be ginning up fear over vote by mail. So-called voter fraud task forces are cropping up in multiple states, and the national Republican Party plans to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to act as “poll watchers,” prompting serious concerns about voter intimidation. Through our State Accountability Project, we filed a number of record requests for state legislators’ communications with national Republican groups, and for the calendars of specific state officials in New Hampshire, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.
For more on what we’ve been investigating this week — including the administration’s disgraceful response to protests for racial justice — read more below:
New Lawsuit to Shed Light on Barr’s Tenure as AG: Barr’s defense of the use of force on peaceful protesters near the White House on June 1 is just the latest instance of his willingness to allow the president’s political interests to subvert the mission of his agency and office. From his mischaracterization of the Mueller report to his interference in the criminal case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Barr’s tenure has been marked by a steady series of actions that politicized the Department of Justice and seriously threatened the rule of law. This week, we sued the Justice Department for his calendars, visitor logs and text messages — the public deserves to know more about Barr’s actions.
Surveillance of Protesters: Last week, Buzzfeed reported that the Trump administration had authorized the Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct covert surveillance of and collect information on protesters, raising concerns about infringement on First Amendment rights. The week before, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flew a drone over protesters in Minneapolis to provide live video to law enforcement. We filed FOIA requests with multiple agencies for intelligence records related to the protests, including interagency information-sharing agreements and data used to track protesters, organizations, or members of the press.
City Responses: Reports from across the country showed police departments responding to the protests with aggressive tactics and violent escalation. Such reports have been particularly numerous in New York City, where the city’s police unions have had a very active social media presence during these protests. In Washington, D.C., federal law enforcement agents were behind the highly criticized June 1 use of force on protesters, and the city’s deputy mayor also confirmed that the Trump administration had discussed federalizing D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). We filed requests with the New York Mayor’s Office and the NYPD for communications with police unions, and asked the D.C. Mayor’s Office for communications with federal law enforcement agencies and any records related to the federalization of D.C. police.
MPD Outside Trump Hotel: Protesters and journalists reported that during the demonstrations, MPD officers were stationed outside the Trump International Hotel in downtown D.C. We requested documents from the police department for communications with the White House or the Trump Organization, to learn more about any relationship between MPD and Trump’s business.
Investigating How Law Enforcement’s Tactics May Have Exacerbated Coronavirus Spread: Among the many troubling reports of police tactics used during the protests were descriptions of crowd containment techniques like “kettling” — pushing people into tightly packed spaces — and mass arrests, tactics that experts say jeopardized the health of protesters and heightened the risk of coronavirus transmission. On top of that, the use of tear gas, pepper spray and other chemical irritants also threatens to worsen the nation’s respiratory pandemic. We filed requests with multiple agencies for risk assessments regarding the use of such measures during the pandemic.
Documents Show Florida Health Department Efforts to Suppress Coronavirus Records: The Sunshine State has not been getting high marks for transparency during the ongoing pandemic, and this week we published a number of emails between state attorneys and officials in Miami-Dade County regarding the release of death reports from the county medical examiner’s office. In April, the Miami Herald separately obtained and reported on the emails, in which the state Department of Health attempted to prevent the county from releasing the records. You can see the records in their entirety here.
Linick’s Testimony Released: This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee released the transcript of its interview with Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general whom Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressured the president to fire, and who was investigating various allegations of misconduct against the secretary. We have a number of requests and lawsuits seeking records related to Pompeo’s conduct — from misuse of department resources to his involvement in the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia — and we filed a new request this week for his written responses to the inspector general’s questions about the arms deal.
Detainee Deaths and Releases During Covid-19: The pandemic has intensified concerns about the living conditions in detention centers and immigrant detainees’ access to adequate health care. Close quarters and a lack of supplies in facilities have left detainees especially vulnerable to contracting Covid-19, but these risks could be alleviated by releasing people and reducing occupancy. We filed a request with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for records that could shed light on the policies and procedures that govern releases, and we are also asking DHS for records related to recent deaths of people in custody.
Coronavirus in New York and New Jersey Nursing Homes: As of May 11, nursing home residents and staff made up one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the U.S, and roughly 20 percent in New York state. On Wednesday, it was reported that 44 percent of New Jersey Covid-19 deaths were of residents and staff members of long-term care facilities. We asked multiple New York agencies and the New Jersey Department of Human Services for communications about the spread of the coronavirus in nursing homes.
Coronavirus in Meat-Processing Plants: More than 115 meat-processing plants across 19 states have reported outbreaks of Covid-19 in their facilities, with thousands of workers reportedly having contracted the disease and 20 having died from it. Despite this, the plants are starting to reopen. We filed FOIA requests with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for emails with high-ranking officials in the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture, as well as for communications and directives from the White House about outbreaks in meat-processing plants.
Investigating Big Pharma’s Influence on Vaccine Pricing: In March, drug industry lobbyists blocked language in the emergency coronavirus relief bill that would have allowed the government to act against any unfair pricing of vaccines and treatments, and concerns remain about how the industry could continue exerting influence over the Trump administration’s pandemic response. We partnered with Patients Over Pharma and Lower Drug Prices Now to file FOIA requests with the Department of Health and Human Services for communications and contracts with different drug companies regarding vaccine pricing.
Merlynn Carson and Covid-19 Testing: In March, the Miami Herald reported that Dr. Merlynn Carson, the daughter-in-law of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, would potentially be administering up to 1 million Covid-19 tests through an arrangement with an Arkansas consulting firm. Given her company’s history receiving various lucrative government contracts, we asked the Baltimore mayor’s office and the Miami mayor’s office for communications with Merlynn Carson, Secretary Carson, or the consulting firm.
Gun Lobby Influence in OMB: We recently obtained calendars for Michael Williams, deputy general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget. They show that Williams participated in phone calls with multiple gun-rights advocates and strategic communication firms in the wake of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. As part of our investigation into the gun lobby’s influence over responses to mass shootings, we filed a FOIA request with OMB for Williams’s communications with gun-rights advocates.
Accountability in the Department of Education: Every year, the Department of Education is required to create a performance agreement with the chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid (FSA) to evaluate the officer’s work and grant bonuses. The department is then obligated to make the agreement publicly available and share it with the relevant congressional committees, but over the past few years, it has not posted the agreements online. We partnered with Student Defense in filing FOIA requests for bonus payment records and performance evaluations for the FSA officer position since 2018.
Trump’s Strict NDAs: In January 2019, Cliff Sims, former campaign staffer and White House employee, published a tell-all book about his experience working in the Trump administration. Shortly after, the Trump campaign sued Sims to enforce a non-disclosure agreement he had signed as a campaign staffer, though the case was eventually dropped. Trump previously made headlines when he pushed for his White House staff to sign strict NDAs (similar to the ones used for his campaign team). We asked the Justice Department for communications and records regarding Sims’s case and his agreement.
Part of Investigation: