News Roundup: Lawsuits Against Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services

As part of its investigation into whether President Trump interfered with plans to relocate the FBI headquarters to prevent competition with his Washington, D.C. hotel, American Oversight sued to force the release of documents related to the president’s involvement in the decision. Earlier this week, we announced that three agencies were refusing to search for records according to our specific requests, and now it appears that lawmakers are also having difficulty getting what they’ve asked for.

On Wednesday, five House committee chairs wrote a letter to the General Services Administration to demand documents they requested in October and December of 2018 regarding the president’s interference. The current FBI headquarters sit a block away from the Trump International Hotel, and Trump’s involvement in the costly decision to rebuild the headquarters at its current site — rather than relocate — has drawn scrutiny.

Despite extensive negotiations, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Justice, and the FBI appear to be stonewalling our investigation by omitting search terms related to the hotel and the Old Post Office building (the federal site where the hotel sits), a strategy that seems designed to miss records that could point to the president or the Trump Organization having improperly influenced the decision.

With three new lawsuits (see below), multiple new FOIA requests, and ongoing congressional hearings, it’s been a busy week:

  • The Chilean mining company helmed by the family of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s D.C. landlord scored a big win late last year when the Trump administration announced that it would renew mining leases for the company’s subsidiary Twin Metals Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. American Oversight has filed FOIA requests with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture for any communications political appointees had with Ivanka Trump or Kushner, or with people associated with Twin Metals Minnesota or its parent company Antofagasta PLC.
  • Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is real, human-made, and largely the result of excess carbon dioxide — not to mention a threat to national security — Trump has announced a presidential committee to subject federal climate research to “adversarial scientific peer review.” Heading this committee is William Happer, whose membership raised eyebrows not just because he claims carbon dioxide is actually a boon to the planet, but because he compared its “demonization” to that “of the poor Jews under Hitler.” We’ve filed FOIA requests to multiple agencies for records of communications that officials had with Happer or anyone from the CO2Coalition, an organization founded by Happer that “promotes the notion that the world needs more carbon dioxide.”
  • Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen came under fire for her Wednesday testimony in front of the House Homeland Security Committee in which she attempted to defend the administration’s family-separation and immigrant-detention policies. Chair Bennie Thompson admonished her not to “mislead the committee,” and other observers accused her of lying under oath. After her April 2018 hearing, we asked for records to determine whether she had deliberately misled Congress when she spoke about the family-separation policy.
  • In January, we requested DHS communications about a “myth/fact” press release regarding the threat of terrorism at the southern border. Last week, DHS responded that it had no records of such communications. Given that Nielsen had tweeted out the press release, this response seems questionable.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger, who took over the agency from the many-hats-wearing Mick Mulvaney, faced questions from the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday. Committee Chair Maxine Waters and other Democrats expressed concern that Kraninger would continue Mulvaney’s deregulatory efforts, mentioning specifically the recent rollback of a rule protecting consumers from predatory payday lenders. American Oversight has filed numerous FOIA requests with the CFPB, and represented Allied Progress in its lawsuit for records that could provide more information on Kraninger’s background.
  • A federal judge ruled that Commerce Secretary WIlbur Ross violated the Constitution’s enumeration clause when he added the citizenship question to the 2020 census. The decision comes two months after another judge similarly found Ross’ action unlawful, and a month after the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. It hasn’t been an easy few months for the billionaire secretary: Despite the complexity of his financial holdings, investigations have uncovered multiple instances in which Ross failed to divest assets he said he would, and his attempt to delay next week’s hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee was not met with any sympathy from Chair Elijah Cummings.
  • After devastating tornadoes passed through Alabama, President Trump promised “A plus treatment” for the state — a statement in sharp contrast to his responses to wildfires in California or hurricanes in Puerto Rico. American Oversight has sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency for records related to the administration’s failed responses to Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
  • In January, HUD Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude announced her resignation, with The Washington Post describing tension between her and the administration over the hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico as well as HUD efforts to protect individuals from housing discrimination. We filed FOIA requests for Patenaude’s communications about those issues, as well as communications other officials might have had about her departure.
  • Ben Carson said this week that he intends to leave his post as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development at the end of Trump’s term. Since the beginning of this administration, we’ve been looking into his family members’ influence on HUD operations, and this week published records we obtained that reveal how his son, Ben Carson Jr., pushed to include on his father’s Baltimore “listening tour” two neighborhoods in which his company was considering making investments. HUD later awarded a $1.3 million grant to the redevelopment of one of those neighborhoods.
  • Sunshine Week begins in just a few days. The week features events like panel discussions and congressional hearings meant to highlight issues facing transparency laws like the Freedom of Information Act and the importance of open government.
New Lawsuits
  • American Oversight is suing the Defense Department to force the release of records related to Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s ties to Boeing, the defense contractor where he worked for three decades. Shanahan signed an ethics agreement barring him from participating in Boeing-related matters, but had reportedly been praising the company at the Pentagon while criticizing its competitors. We’re looking for his communications with Boeing as well as his ethics determinations and authorizations. You can read ABC News’ report on our lawsuit here.
  • We also filed a lawsuit for Department of Agriculture documents that could shed light on industry influence over USDA decisions. In 2017, the department scaled back nutritional standards for school lunches, and we’re asking for records of communications with the food industry. The lawsuit also seeks communications between USDA official Rebeckah Adcock and outside entities — specifically those with her former employer, a pesticide industry trade group she lobbied for before joining the administration.
  • In 2018, the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project documented the Department of Health and Human Services’ removal of a lesbian and bisexual health fact sheet from a women’s health website, as well as the removal of a website offering information about where to access breast cancer screenings. On Friday, American Oversight joined the Sunlight Foundation in suing HHS for documents related to the department’s removal of valuable health information for vulnerable populations.