News Roundup: Impeachment Votes and Sonny Perdue’s Georgia Connections

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue

The impeachment inquiry got some big jolts this week — the House voted on Thursday for a resolution outlining the rules for the impeachment process. And on Wednesday, the State Department agreed to release by Nov. 22 Ukraine-related documents requested by American Oversight.

As the impeachment inquiry gears up for its more public phase, American Oversight is continuing its investigations across the administration, looking into ethics and influence issues at agencies not spotlighted by the continual impeachment news cycles — agencies like the Department of Agriculture.

This week, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against the USDA to see whether Secretary Sonny Perdue’s ties to agricultural interest groups in his home state of Georgia have had an impact on his policy decisions. We’ve already obtained his calendars, which show that between April and November 2017, he traveled back to Georgia 13 times, all at taxpayer expense. And just a day after he was sworn in, he met with members of the Georgia Farm Bureau at a breakfast that also included his cousin, Georgia Senator David Perdue.

Perdue had entered the Trump administration with a long ethics recusal letter and an extensive financial disclosure report that included a web of Georgia-based entities. The lawsuit seeks records included in several Freedom of Information Act requests we’ve filed, including Perdue’s emails with external entities and family members at Perdue Partners, and emails he sent or received using a non-governmental email account. We’re also asking for emails sent by the Georgia offices of USDA’s Rural Development and Farm Service Agencies to Perdue or his businesses, and for records related to Perdue’s meetings with Fieldale Farms and the Georgia Feed and Grain Association.

American Oversight is also looking into the decision to relocate two USDA research facilities from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region. In June, Perdue announced that the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture would be moving in less than four months, disrupting the lives of scores of federal workers, many of whom quit. We filed FOIA requests for top USDA officials communications about the relocation with Kansas and Missouri officials and with officials at the Office of Management and Budget.

For more on what we’ve been up to this week — and for more about the impeachment inquiry — keep reading:

Impeachment Update: The State Department agreed this week to release Ukraine-related documents requested by American Oversight, including communications between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, by Nov. 22. More about what documents are included in the request and in the agency’s search can be found here. “While it is too early to say whether the State Department will ultimately meet the court’s order in letter and spirit, negotiations have begun in good faith,” said American Oversight’s executive director, Austin Evers.

Brady Toensing: One of the figures included in the documents mentioned above is Trump lawyer and Giuliani associate Victoria Toensing, whose son works at the Department of Justice as a senior counsel in the Office of Legal Policy. In that role, Brady Toensing is positioned to provide guidance to Attorney General William Barr on matters related to the impeachment inquiry. We’ve asked the Justice Department for Toensing’s communications with Ukrainian officials or key figures like Giuliani, Lev Parnas, or Igor Fruman, and for his communications related to the Ukraine investigation.

New Witnesses: This week, House investigators heard testimony from two top National Security Council officials, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who had been on President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Tim Morrison, who resigned the day before giving his testimony. Vindman said that the summary transcript of the July call released by the White House omitted key phrases, and that he had reported his concerns about the call to a superior. Morrison also confirmed that he had been told that aid to Ukraine was conditioned on the country announcing an investigation that could benefit Trump politically. You can read more about all the people involved here.

DHS Shakeups: The instability defining the Department of Homeland Security’s top levels since the spring shakeup that ousted former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is still being felt, with the latest reports being that Trump plans to nominate Acting Undersecretary Chad Wolf to replace Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan as head of the agency. Wolf was an early architect of the administration’s family-separation policy, and calendars obtained by American Oversight show multiple meetings in early 2018 about family separation and “ending catch and release.”  (Another name that had been floated as a possible nominee is that of Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. We filed a FOIA request this week for his calendars.)

Palantir: Since 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has used software created by Palantir Technologies, the company co-founded by Trump adviser Peter Thiel, to access sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers, addresses, criminal histories, and location tracking data. With concerns growing about ICE’s surveillance capabilities — including reports that the agency used the software to target relatives of unaccompanied minors — we filed FOIA requests for records related to the use of the software and for communications with related entities, including Palantir representatives. We also filed a FOIA request with USDA, which uses Palantir software at its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

VIP Treatment: We uncovered new instances of Interior Department officials arranging private VIP tours of national parks for Trump administration allies and friends, including Secretary Perdue and friends of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The emails, which reveal new examples in which the fine line between extending courtesies and abusing agency privileges may have been crossed, also include an instance in which an Interior Department employee helped set up a special tour of a privately run site for the brother of the Republican National Committee finance chair.

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