News Roundup: Political Appointees, Lobbyists and Those In Between

This week, American Oversight joined Democracy Forward in suing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and the National Archives and Records Administration for failing to recover and preserve emails that top VA officials sent from personal email accounts to three members of President Donald Trump’s private Florida club, in violation of the Federal Records Act.

Last week, American Oversight published a new set of documents that show the extraordinary level of involvement at the VA that senior political appointees allowed the so-called Mar-a-Lago Crowd — Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment; Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor; and Marc Sherman, a lawyer — despite the fact that none of the men had before held government positions. On top of that, the documents include evidence that top officials, including former VA Secretary David Shulkin, used personal email to communicate with the three, so the full extent of their involvement may not yet be known.

And the evidence of this unusual and heavy-handed involvement in VA policymaking keeps mounting — this week, Politico reported on new emails obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The documents contain a number of messages from career officials that reveal the frustration they felt at having to work with the trio on issues like overhauling the department’s electronic records system. Politico wrote that senior staff “humored the three Trump friends while ignoring their advice, which they considered misinformed and potentially disruptive to veteran health care.”

More from this week: 

Student Loan Industry Lobbying: New documents reveal that the CEO of giant student loan servicer Navient personally lobbied the Education Department before the administration’s 2018 decision to preempt states from regulating the industry. The documents were provided to the National Student Legal Defense Network in response to a lawsuit we filed on NSLDN’s behalf, and show the CEO asking the administration to declare that states didn’t have authority to regulate student loan servicers.

But Why Lobby When You Can Work There?: An executive at another large student loan servicing business has been appointed the top student loan official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, another addition to an administration friendly to student loan servicers and for-profit colleges.

Gorka Out: Two months after taking the job as CBP press secretary, Katharine Gorka is leaving the administration. As an adviser at Homeland Security, Gorka reportedly told the department to cut grant funding for groups working to fight right-wing extremism, and we have an active lawsuit against DHS in our investigation of whether and to what extent her ties to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups influenced federal policy.

Abuse of Migrants in Custody: Just a few days after ProPublica reported on the existence of a Facebook group in which Border Patrol agents made offensive comments about migrants, CNN reported on Customs and Border Protection agents having made a Honduran migrant hold a sign that said, “I like men,” in an attempt to humiliate him. We’re asking for photos taken around the time of the incident by employees at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s El Paso Processing Center.

Congressional Visits to Detention Centers: Members of Congress, federal inspectors and other officials have made or tried to make numerous visits to immigrant detention centers run by CBP, ICE, and HHS’ Administration for Children and Families. But how do officials at those facilities prepare for such visits? We’ve asked the agencies for directives or other guidance issued at various facilities for how to handle inquiries or visits from political officials.

Domestic Terrorism: “A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray during congressional testimony on July 23, less than two weeks before mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. We’re asking for the data underlying Wray’s testimony, as well as information about domestic terror incidents going back to 2009.

Ben Carson Jr.: Transportation Department calendars we obtained show that Ben Carson Jr., the son of the secretary of housing and urban development, and other family members met with several department employees in May 2017 to discuss public-private partnerships. Ben Carson Jr. is the co-founder of Interprise Partners, a company that invests in “critical infrastructure,” and earlier this year we uncovered records from June 2017 showing his efforts to use his influence at HUD to help his business. To learn whether Carson Jr. has been making similar efforts at the Transportation Department, we’re asking for more information about that meeting as well as for communications between top Transportation officials and Carson family members.

Zinke the Lobbyist: It’s not too surprising that Ryan Zinke, the former interior secretary who left office through a cloud of investigations, is now working for companies that he was tasked with regulating during his time in the administration. Zinke is now involved with multiple oil and gas industry companies and entities, and ethics guidance for post-government employment requires that he wait five years before lobbying the Interior Department and wait till the end of the administration to lobby other officials. We filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see if he is following the rules.

Perry Ethics: In late 2016 — before he joined the administration as Trump’s energy secretary but after his turn on Dancing with the Stars — former Texas Governor Rick Perry joined the board of Celltex Therapeutics, a stem cell company founded by a donor and adviser. In his ethics agreement, Perry reported that he had resigned from his position at the end of the year. He also resigned from the boards of two developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners. We’ve filed FOIA requests for communications with those companies — and with lobbyist Jeff Miller — to determine whether Perry is heeding his ethical obligations.

Roy Moore Aide at Energy: Zach Michael, a Trump administration speechwriter who previously worked for former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has been appointed as acting chief of staff in the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. We have his resume, which says that while working for Moore, he “[d]rafted speeches and conducted research on behalf of causes related to traditional values.” 

Frank Wuco: The senior White House adviser to the Department of Homeland Security, Frank Wuco, has made frequent appearances on anti-LGBTQ radio shows and has supported banning visas for people from Muslim countries. We want to know who he’s been communicating with outside the government, and have also asked for his communications with notable anti-immigrant hardliners like White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller and his aides.

Lynne Patton’s Twitter: Senior HUD official Lynne Patton — the one who had no housing experience and who has requested to participate in a reality show about black Republicans — sent a series of unprofessional and dismissive tweets to reporter Molly Parker on Thursday. Of course, Patton once also said that American Oversight should “get a life.”

Giuliani and Ukraine: According to the New York Times, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has renewed his push for Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political opponents, including presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. We still have active FOIA requests in our investigation of how much Trump’s political interests are influencing U.S. policy in Ukraine.