News Roundup: Investigating State-Level Threats to Democracy

With so much attention trained on tackling federal misconduct in the Trump administration, corruption at the state and local levels has flourished and often gone unchecked. But addressing the corruption and threats to democracy in state government is just as urgent.

On Monday, American Oversight announced its State Accountability Project, aimed at filling the void left by the decline in local and regional journalism, feeble checks on power, and under-utilized open records laws. Our first priority is combating voter suppression by investigating state-level voter-roll purges, strict ID laws, and underfunded polling locations. We have already filed a number of requests in Florida, Georgia and Texas, looking into the influence of prominent voting-restrictionist activists like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky. We’ve also filed requests for communications with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative political organization that supplies state legislators with draft model legislation.

While we have also been investigating the influence of anti-abortion rights groups at the Department of Health and Human Services, the news this week — specifically the spate of abortion bans being introduced across the country, including Alabama, where a new law criminalizing abortion in almost every case was signed by Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday — hits home the power that state policy can have over people’s rights.

With one political party controlling the governorship and both legislative houses in more than half of the states, decreased scrutiny of potential governmental misconduct is widespread. American Oversight’s State Accountability Project will use the organization’s expertise in open-records litigation and investigation to uncover corruption and threats to democracy at the state and local levels.

Of course, our investigations of the Trump administration continue — here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:

Mar-a-Lago Crowd: American Oversight has uncovered records indicating that high-ranking officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs may have used personal email to communicate with the “Mar-a-Lago crowd” — three members of Trump’s Florida club who exercised high-level influence over VA officials through 2017 and 2018. The improper use of personal email for official business — a running theme of this administration — suggests that the full extent of their involvement in VA policy may not yet have come to light. We sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie demanding that the VA recover those emails.

Rent Increase Proposal: An April 2018 proposal from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would have greatly increased rent for the poorest Americans, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimating that more than 4 million households would have seen an average annual rent increase of $780. We filed a FOIA request for HUD communications with the Heritage Foundation or the Charles Koch Institute to find out whether external groups influenced the proposal’s development, and another request for any studies or analyses HUD conducted about the proposal.

$8,000 Dishwashers and $43,000 Phone Booths: This week, the Government Accountability Office found that HUD Secretary Ben Carson broke the law when he failed to report significant office expenditures, including a $31,000 dining set and an $8,000 dishwasher. In 2018, we uncovered records showing that Carson knew about the purchase of the dining set (despite his attempts to pin it on his wife) as part of our wider investigation into Trump cabinet office renovation spending. That investigation also uncovered the true cost of a soundproof phone booth former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt installed in his office — $43,000 — and this week the EPA inspector general issued its own recommendation that the agency recover the nearly $124,000 in improper travel expenses that Pruitt racked up during his tenure.

Jared’s U.S.-Russia Reconciliation Plan: Among the numerous episodes detailed in the Mueller report on Russian election interference and obstruction of justice was one in which White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner shared a proposal for U.S.-Russia reconciliation with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-White House Adviser Steve Bannon. That proposal was drafted by a Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian businessman and associate of President Vladimir Putin, and Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager and friend of Kushner. We’re asking the State Department for any copy of that proposal provided to Tillerson, as well as any communications about the proposal. We also requested records of communications between State Department officials and Dmitriev or Gerson.

Rubio’s Involvement in Venezuela Policy: As the situation in Venezuela escalates, with growing speculation about U.S. intervention, Sen. Marco Rubio has emerged as a prominent Venezuela hawk, with the New York Times characterizing him as a “virtual secretary of state for Latin America.” Rubio hailed the January appointment of Elliott Abrams, a conservative known for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, to the position of U.S. special envoy for Venezuela. American Oversight has filed a FOIA request for Abrams’ communications with Rubio or his office.

Education Department Interference: Kathy Kraninger, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said this week that the Education Department was getting in the way of efforts to oversee the student loan industry. Loan servicers, like Navient, are not turning over information to the CFPB, citing Education Department guidance telling them not to do so for “privacy” reasons. We filed a lawsuit with the National Student Legal Defense Network last year for records related to the department’s role in helping Navient defend itself against a CFPB lawsuit regarding loan servicers’ having misled or cheated student borrowers.

Interior Oversight Hearing: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, where he was questioned about his former oil and gas industry clients, oil executives’ access to the administration, and the renewal of mining leases for Twin Metals in Minnesota, a firm connected to a mining company run by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s landlord in D.C.

Deaths in Custody: Another child has died after his family was apprehended by immigration authorities after crossing the southern border. The two-year-old boy from Guatemala reportedly died at an El Paso hospital from complications from pneumonia. We’ve filed a number of FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security for information about the deaths of people in DHS custody and the treatment of detainees.

LGBTQ Rights Abroad — And at Home: At the same time that the Trump administration has said it is working to end the criminalization of homosexuality around the world, anti-LGBTQ rights activists have been making efforts to gain influence at the State Department, with Secretary Mike Pompeo having reportedly made overtures to some of those groups. We’re working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to ask for communications that Pompeo, Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and other political appointees have had with various groups and activists, to learn whether officials have collaborated with those seeking to limit LGBTQ rights domestically while the administration claims to advocate for them abroad.

Other news: We filed a new set of requests in our investigation of loyalty tests at the State Department; CFPB official Eric Blankenstein is leaving the administration (we’re suing the agency for his communications following reports that he published a blog under a pen name in which he expressed racist and sexist views).

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