News Roundup: Investigating the Fallout from Spring’s DHS Shakeup

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform this week, with lawmakers confronting him about the poor conditions at migrant detention centers.

In the past month, details have begun to emerge about the state of U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities that hold migrants at the southern border. One visiting physician described “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food” at CBP’s facility in McAllen, Texas. Members of Congress who visited the Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, reported being told by detained women that they were told to drink from toilet bowls due to a lack of running water.

We’re continuing our investigation of the conditions, filing new Freedom of Information Act requests this week with DHS’ Office of the Inspector General and the CBP for all photographs, video or audio from any inspections of CBP facilities.

McAleenan ascended to his current position during the April shakeup that ousted former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. That reorganization, reportedly insisted on by White House aide Stephen Miller, also led to the announcement in June that former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli would head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. We’ve requested Cuccinelli’s calendars and emails with outside entities — and his communications with or about Miller.

More recently, President Donald Trump named Mark Morgan as the new acting chief of CBP. Morgan, who earlier this year had said that he could tell whether a child migrant was a gang member by looking “at their eyes,” was briefly the director of Immigration and Customs and Enforcement prior to his role as CBP commissioner, and before that was head of U.S. Border Patrol. We have a number of active FOIA requests for information about his time at Border Patrol, and filed another request this week for his communications with outside groups.

DeVos Personal Emails: We filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education this week to compel the release of official work emails that Secretary Betsy DeVos sent with a personal account. The House Oversight and Reform Committee has also demanded the release of the emails, and we filed another FOIA request to uncover the extent to which DeVos used private accounts to conduct government business.

Agent’s Promotion of Trump: CBP Agent Brandon Judd is the president of the National Border Patrol Council and has frequently appeared on news shows to promote the administration. To learn more about whether and to what extent Judd has promoted partisan political interests as a federal government employee, we’re asking for his email communications with outside individuals or groups.

First Step Act’s First Stumbles: A number of lawmakers have expressed concern about the selection of the Hudson Institute to host the independent committee that is required by Congress’ December 2018 criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act. When House Judiciary Committee members questioned the Justice Department representatives who oversaw the selection, the department was unable to identify the process used for its decision. We’ve asked the Justice Department for records that could shed light on the Hudson Institute’s possible influence over its selection.

Trump International Hotel Lease: We’re keeping on with our investigation of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which has been the epicenter of the president’s financial conflicts of interest and corruption. The hotel is located in the publicly owned Old Post Office Tower, and an investigation by the General Services Administration’s inspector general found that the agency had ignored constitutional issues in allowing the lease to be renewed. We filed additional FOIA requests with GSA and the Justice Department for communications related to the lease or with key Trump Organization representatives.

Speaking of the Trump Hotel…: According to the Washington Post, last year an Iraqi sheikh named Nahro al-Kasnazan spent 26 nights at Trump’s D.C. hotel. Al-Kasnazan wrote letters to Trump administration officials lobbying for a hardline approach to Iran, and held informal meetings with State Department officials regarding Iran policy. We’re asking the State Department for communications with al-Kasnazan or his representatives.

CBP’s Tracking of Journalists: In the last year, reports have indicated that the CBP has attempted to intimidate journalists, subjecting them to secondary screening and pressing to access their electronic files at ports of entry. These reports follow earlier news that at least one CBP field office has created a database to track and monitor journalists, immigrant advocates and lawyers. DHS’ inspector general is reportedly investigating — and so are we. We filed FOIA requests for CBP guidance about tracking journalists at specified ports of entry, as well as for any photos taken or texts sent by specified agents.

Remember Ryan Zinke?: A Montana construction company that had donated $10,000 to the congressional campaigns of Ryan Zinke, the scandal-laden former interior secretary, was awarded a nearly $200 million contract for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The company, Barnard Construction, had also received a $75 million contract for wall-related work last year. We want to know whether Zinke played a role in the company winning those contracts.

Russian Companies and Kentucky: A few months ago, we began investigating ties between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a Russian oligarch who was associated with multiple entities that the administration had lifted sanctions on in December. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had supported lifting sanctions on those entities, including the Russian company En+ Group and its subsidiary Rusal, and just four months later the company announced a $200 million investment in a Kentucky aluminum plant to be built by Braidy Industries. We’re asking the Treasury Department for communications with those Russian entities or McConnell’s office about the deal. And given Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s close coordination with McConnell’s office on Kentucky projects, we’re asking the Transportation Department for such communications as well.

DeSantis’ Wooing of the Trump Organization: Last fall, then-candidate for governor Ron DeSantis publicly suggested that he would try to incentivize the Trump Organization to come to Palm Beach, Florida, saying that he could “save [them] a lot of money.” We filed a public records request to find out whether DeSantis offered the Trump Organization tax breaks or other incentives to entice it to build in Palm Beach.

Nuclear Power Plant Deal: While real-estate mogul Franklin Haney was seeking regulatory approval to buy the assets of an Alabama nuclear power plant from the Tennessee Valley Authority, Haney contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. We want to know whether and to what extent Haney attempted to influence the regulatory process, and are asking for his or his company’s communications with the TVA and the Department of Energy.

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