The late-night firing a week ago of the State Department’s independent watchdog was, of course, yet another example of President Donald Trump’s aversion to accountability. But in the week since, it has also unearthed a series of concerning stories about the conduct of the very person who pressed for the firing — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the days after Trump notified Congress that he would be ousting State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, news surfaced that Linick had been investigating Pompeo for allegedly having a political appointee perform personal errands for him and his wife, Susan Pompeo, such as picking up food and walking the family’s dog. That same appointee, Toni Porter, was also the primary liaison between the secretary’s office and the department’s Office of Protocol when it came to setting up fancy dinners — paid for by the State Department — that at best blurred the lines between diplomacy and self-serving political activity and at worst represent Hatch Act-violating abuses of taxpayer money.
According to NBC News, which reported on the so-called Madison Dinners this week, the guest lists included more Republican politicians, corporate billionaires, and conservative media figures than foreign officials or diplomats. The guests’ names and contact information were sent to the private email account of Susan Pompeo, whose questionable role at the department we’ve also been investigating. It is unknown whether Linick was investigating the dinners, but NBC reported that Linick had last week made an inquiry to the department’s protocol office, which runs the events.
It’s not the only instance in which Pompeo has been suspected of using his office for personal political gain. His trips to his home state of Kansas and his undisclosed stops to meet with donors during official trips have drawn scrutiny and speculation about his future electoral ambitions. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that Secretary Pompeo is using the State Department to support his political career, and is using the position of secretary of state to collect a Rolodex of powerful people to support him for whatever venture he sees next,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director, in the New York Times.
American Oversight has been investigating Pompeo’s potential abuses of office and whether and to what extent his political plans have mixed with his official duties. We’ve sued the Trump administration for his external communications, and have also sued for records of whistleblower complaints regarding his conduct — including related communications sent or received by Linick. On Monday, we requested expedition of the release of those records in light of the reports of Linick’s ousting and Pompeo’s own involvement.
But as is so often the case in the Trump administration, that isn’t the only potential scandal that Linick’s firing has dredged up. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel also said that he had requested that Linick investigate the administration’s May 2019 emergency declaration that allowed the fast-tracking of $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the objections of Congress. This week, Politico reported that Pompeo had disregarded the advice of top officials who had said there was no proper justification for declaring the emergency, and on Friday CNN reported that Pompeo had even pushed State Department officials to find a way to justify the move. The fact that Pompeo submitted written answers to questions but declined to be interviewed in Linick’s investigation of the emergency declaration indicates that he was aware of the inquiry before he pushed for Trump to fire Linick.
American Oversight began investigating the fast-tracking of the arms sales last year, and we have sued for records related to the involvement of former State Department official Charles Faulkner, who had previously been a lobbyist for Raytheon. And this week, we filed additional Freedom of Information Act requests for records related to inspector general investigations of Pompeo as well as related communications or meetings. Learn more about what we’ve been working on this week, including updates on our coronavirus investigation, below:
Emails Show SBA Official Sharing Resumes with the White House Official Spearheading Loyalty Purges: Trump’s efforts to rid the federal government of anyone perceived to be insufficiently loyal to his administration have fallen in large part to John McEntee, the director of the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office. Shortly after his rehiring in February, McEntee held a meeting in which he asked White House liaisons from cabinet agencies to identify political appointees and career officials deemed anti-Trump. We obtained records from the Small Business Administration showing Senior Adviser and White House Liaison Christopher Gray sending two officials’ resumes to McEntee on Feb. 28. “Administrator [Jovita] Carranza asked that I share these resumes with you per your discussion earlier this week,” Gray wrote. Read more here.
Lawsuit for Records Related to Government’s Response to Coronavirus Outbreaks in Detention Centers: On Thursday, we sued the Trump administration for failing to release documents regarding the federal government’s response to the coronavirus and its impact on vulnerable populations in prisons and immigration detention centers. Those facilities are prone to disease outbreaks given the close proximity of the people within them, and according to the Bureau of Prisons, thousands of federal inmates and staff had confirmed positive test results for Covid-19 nationwide.
Barr’s Close Involvement in Investigation of Mueller Probe: CNN reported this week on documents uncovered by American Oversight that show Attorney General William Barr met with U.S. Attorney John Durham immediately after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference ended. The records show Barr meeting multiple times that spring with Durham, who was appointed to examine the origins of Mueller’s investigation. “The Justice Department’s consistent, transparent machinations to favor the president’s associates make it hard to see Bill Barr’s heavy personal involvement in the Durham investigation as anything other than potential political interference to benefit President Trump,” said Evers of American Oversight.
Timothy Shea Out of Key Justice Department Office: Interim U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Timothy Shea, who was at the center of the controversial decisions to reverse the sentencing recommendations of Trump ally Roger Stone and to dismiss the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, will no longer head that division. Earlier this month, we filed a complaint with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility asking the office to investigate Shea’s conduct, and we urged the court to appoint a career prosecutor to take his place.
Reopening America: Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has repeatedly contradicted the advice of health experts, and has even criticized communities for imposing social distancing measures. The administration and its newly established Council to Reopen America is now pushing to reopen the country despite warnings from medical professionals, knowingly putting more lives at risk to keep the economy afloat. We want to know more about the council, and we filed FOIA requests to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the Office of Personnel Management, and the Office of Management and Budget for directives and communications about reopening the government and the implementation of relief packages. We’re also asking the Department of Health and Human services for coronavirus-related funding requests.
Ivanka and Jared on the Coronavirus: Since the start of the Trump administration, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s positions at the White House have been unclear, and their roles in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are no exception. Many questions have been raised about Kushner’s volunteer coronavirus task force, including about the work of Rachael Baitel, USAID adviser and former aide to Ivanka Trump, who temporarily served as a supervisor on the task force. In this position, Baitel reportedly worked on supply-chain issues and prioritized tips on equipment suppliers that came from politically connected individuals. We filed a request with USAID for Baitel’s emails regarding coronavirus supplies, and also filed requests with OMB and USTR for communications with Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Detention Transfers: DHS has started to transfer migrant detainees into less-crowded facilities to curb the spread of coronavirus. But this tactic may have spread the virus to new locations as detainees were moved around. We filed FOIA requests with DHS for protocols and data regarding detainee transfers made because of the coronavirus.
Expired Vaccines in Detention Facility: Yesterday, we reported on records from the Texas Department of State Health Services that included an email saying that 39 doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine went bad in early 2019 when a refrigerator failed at an ICE-operated detention facility in Texas — the same time as a mumps outbreak was spreading throughout detention centers.
New Immigration Offices: In December 2019, the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman (OIDO) was established to address detention-related complaints. Julie Kirchner was appointed to serve as ombudsman, despite her previous leadership role at the far-right Federation for American Immigration Reform. And in February 2020, the Justice Department announced the formation of the Denaturalization Section to look into and litigate “fraudsters who illegally obtained” citizenship. We asked DHS for records concerning OIDO, including communications, organizational charts, directives, and Kirchner’s ethics documents. We also asked the Justice Department for documents to shed light on the operations and policies of the new Denaturalization Section.
Flynn’s Security Clearance: Earlier this month, the Justice Department’s decision to drop the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, shocked many. The case took another turn when the presiding judge effectively put the move on hold. American Oversight continues to investigate the Trump administration’s political interference at the Justice Department, and last Monday we sued the department to compel the release of agency communications about Flynn’s case. This week, we filed FOIA requests for Flynn’s security clearance forms, on which he would have been required to disclose his contacts with Turkish government officials.
IHS Sexual Assault Report: Lawmakers are urging HHS Secretary Alex Azar to release an Indian Health Service (IHS) report that allegedly highlights systematic failings that allowed an IHS doctor to sexually abuse Native American children. The doctor, who was sentenced to five lifetime terms in February, had been employed by IHS for more than 20 years despite concerns about his behavior toward children throughout his career. We filed a FOIA request with HHS for the IHS report.
Amazon and Microsoft Fight over JEDI: Amazon and Microsoft are at odds over the Pentagon’s lucrative Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud computing contract. Microsoft won the contract in October 2019, but Amazon contested the award, alleging misconduct during the bidding process. The Defense Department inspector general conducted a review of the allegations and made its findings public last month. We filed a FOIA request with the department for relevant records that were withheld from the IG’s office during the investigation.
Wilks Brothers Back Trump: According to reporting in the Washington Post, the Trump campaign has raked in new donors, including some who represent a class of long-time GOP funders who turned their backs on Trump in 2016. Among them are billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, who make their money in the fracking industry. The Wilks brothers have donated to right-wing groups in the past (and supported Sen. Ted Cruz during the 2016 primaries), but this is the first time they are financially backing Trump and have so far given $100,000 towards his reelection. We filed FOIA requests with multiple agencies for communications with the Wilks brothers as well as with individuals representing them.
White’s White House Role: In November 2019, the White House confirmed that Paula White — pastor, televangelist, and Trump’s long-time spiritual adviser — would be officially joining the White House as an adviser on the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The White House later clarified that White is a special government employee, meaning she is not required to file a public financial disclosure form. At the same time, she is also running the One Voice Prayer Movement, which promotes Trump’s policies. We want to know more about White’s position at the White House, and we asked the Small Business Administration for communications between specific SBA officials and White or affiliated parties.
ODNI’s Kash Patel: On Thursday, the Senate voted along party lines to confirm Rep. John Ratcliffe as the new director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Before his nomination, Trump had appointed Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting director. Grenell brought on Kash Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes who worked to discredit the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. We filed requests with ODNI for Patel’s calendars, travel records, and communications.
Voting Machine Numbers in Texas: In March, Texas voters faced excessive lines during the states’ primary election. Some voters waited six hours to cast their ballots, and Texas lawmakers announced that they would hold hearings on the issue. This week, a federal judge ruled that all Texas voters can use mail-in ballots in the upcoming election because of the coronavirus, but questions remain about voting infrastructure in the state. We asked multiple Texas counties for records concerning election operations, including the number of voting machines and ballots cast at different polling locations during select elections in recent years. The requests also seek information about the number of voting machines planned for use during 2020 early voting.
Absentee Ballots in Georgia: We want to know more about access to absentee ballot request forms in prisons, especially for detained individuals who have not been convicted of a felony or are completing sentences for misdemeanors. We submitted records requests to multiple Georgia counties, the Georgia secretary of state, and the Georgia Department of Corrections for communications, protocols, and directives concerning absentee ballot request forms, and also asked the secretary of state’s office and the Department of Administrative Services for email communications about an urgent meeting held by the state’s election board to approve the use of ballot drop boxes because of the coronavirus.
Part of Investigation: