News Roundup: Thankful for FOIA

Late on Friday evening, the State Department released nearly 100 pages of documents to American Oversight, the first batch of records in our first lawsuit against the administration for Ukraine-related records.

The documents show phone calls between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in late March, as the smear campaign against Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was in full swing. They also include an email in which Trump’s Oval Office gatekeeper helped put Giuliani’s assistant in touch with Pompeo’s office and a schedule of the secretary’s calls that include one with Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes, a vocal defender of President Donald Trump’s actions.

But the fact that we obtained these documents while the Trump administration continues to obstruct Congress’s access to the same records is troubling. American Oversight was able to get the records thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and FOIA litigation can move much quicker than enforcement of congressional subpoenas. Two major takeaways from the administration’s refusal to give documents to Congress that the public has a right to under FOIA are 1) that the Freedom of Information remains a vital tool for exposing corruption and misconduct, and 2) that the administration’s actions qualify as obstruction, itself an impeachable offense that was included in articles of impeachment drawn up for both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

You can read more here about why FOIA litigation moves faster, about the chain of events that led to Friday’s document release, and about our other lawsuits (and the records we’re pushing the government to release). Thank you for your support as we work to hold the administration accountable, and please read on to learn more about what else we’ve been looking into this week:

Barr and Fox News: It’s well-known that not only is President Trump an avid watcher of Fox News — he frequently calls into the morning show Fox & Friends — but that television host Sean Hannity has long held a role as a presidential adviser and confidant. We’re looking into Attorney General William Barr’s contacts with Fox News representatives, specifically the meeting he held last month with Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch, seeking records from that meeting, as well as Barr’s communications with anyone tied to Murdoch organizations.

Russian Investment in Kentucky Aluminum Plant: We’ve been investigating ties between administration officials and the Russian company En+ Group and its subsidiary Rusal, which announced back in May that it would invest millions in a Kentucky aluminum plant, to be built by Braidy Industries, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others had supported lifting sanctions on the company. Now, we’re asking for outgoing Ky. Gov. Matt Bevin’s communications with En+, or his office’s communications with McConnell’s office regarding Braidy or En+.

Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Influence: Jerry Falwell Jr., the current president of Liberty University and steadfast Trump administration supporter, has claimed that school officials have exercised significant influence on Education Department policy decisions made by Secretary Betsy DeVos. Recently, Congress members sent DeVos a letter alleging that her agency had “failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration’s political allies, such as Liberty University.” (Earlier this month, a Liberty professor left the university, citing concerns about academic freedom.) We’re asking the Education and State Departments for top officials’ communications with Falwell or about his proposals.

Poultry Factory Safety Regulations: Last month, the Department of Agriculture approved a waiver program that allows poultry processing facilities to operate at faster speeds — including factories with troubling safety records. Experts have expressed concern that changes at those plants, already among the most dangerous workplaces, could lead to greater risk of injuries. We’re asking for records that could shed light on whether this change was spurred by industry influences.

Sarah Sanders’ Political Ambitions: Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was back in the news this week thanks to a profile in the New York Times in which she voiced her displeasure at being called “a liar,” claimed Trump reads “more than anybody I know,” and indicated her consideration of a run for Arkansas governor. Last month, she was the first guest on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s official USDA podcast, “The Sonnyside of the Farm.” Critics noted that “Sanders has no background in farming or agriculture policy,” and that the episode “had nothing to do with the [USDA’s] mission.” Moreover, the podcast was recorded in Arkansas. We filed a FOIA request for her communications with USDA officials.

Chad Wolf’s Election Work: The new acting secretary of homeland security, Chad Wolf, has been in the news recently for his past involvement in the administration’s family-separation policy. His official DHS biography indicates that he also “led several significant initiatives to … safeguard the U.S. electoral process.” Given the Trump administration’s troubling track record with voting rights, including the prominence of Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, we’re asking the department for Wolf’s communications with Kobach and other voting-restriction activists like Hans von Spakovsky, as well as for other related communications and more information about a Feb. 20, 2018, meeting Wolf had with Kobach.

New Perry FOIAs: Energy Secretary Rick Perry finished his “last official duties” for the administration this week, but we’re still looking into his Ukraine contacts and his ties to that country’s energy industry. During recent impeachment hearings, witness David Holmes testified that during a May 2019 delegation to Ukraine led by Perry, the energy secretary shared with President Volodymyr Zelensky a list of “people he trusts” to advise the new Ukrainian president on “energy sector reform.” We’re asking for that list, and other materials from Perry’s Ukrainian meetings.

Thanks Again! With #GivingTuesday next week, we are inviting you to support our accountability movement. A contribution to American Oversight will support our mission to expose corruption, investigate abuses of power, and fight for a more transparent and accountable government. Follow us on Twitter at @weareoversight and consider making a contribution today.

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