This year, as more Americans learn about and celebrate Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, the country is in the midst of what many have termed a national reckoning with racism.
Demonstrations against police killings of black Americans have continued, and the Trump administration’s response — both to the protests themselves and to the issue of systemic racism in law enforcement — has been both harmful and insufficient. Despite his touting of it as “a big step,” President Donald Trump’s recently signed executive order on policing has been widely viewed by experts and reform advocates as falling far short of the transformational change needed.
The administration’s previous measures have also demonstrated a lack of serious consideration of necessary reform. The Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which was created by Attorney General William Barr in January to study policing reform, is composed of only current or former law enforcement officials — no civil rights groups, reform advocates, or others who stray from the administration’s standard “law and order” line. Moreover, the commission has not solicited adequate input from the public, affected communities, or criminal justice reform experts; nor has it been transparent in its meetings or working papers.
On Thursday, American Oversight, along with Fair and Just Prosecution, co-authored an amicus curiae brief in support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s lawsuit challenging the commission’s legality under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. FACA requires all federal committees to maintain a diverse and balanced membership, and to allow the public access to their work. Not only is the commission failing to comply with those requirements, but such failings render it unable to meet its goal of “restor[ing] the public confidence in law enforcement,” which necessarily involves building community trust.
Barr’s excessive focus on executive power and “law and order” is also a part of American Oversight’s investigation into the administration’s response to the protests that captured the nation’s attention this month. We’ve filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests with federal law enforcement agencies regarding the use of force — reportedly ordered by Barr — against peaceful protesters near the White House on June 1, and are also investigating the surveillance of demonstrators and other intimidation tactics; you can view those requests here.
Of course, the nation is also facing another crisis at this moment. The coronavirus continues its spread across the country, with many states, including Texas and Arizona, seeing a peak in confirmed cases of Covid-19. For more on our investigation into the government’s pandemic response, including two new related lawsuits, as well as our other work, read on:
Jared Kushner’s Failed Coronavirus Supply Chain Task Force: Since the start of Trump’s presidency, the question of what exactly the role his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner plays has been asked frequently, rarely with satisfying answers. His role in the federal pandemic response is no different. While his task force created to coordinate the procurement of badly needed medical supplies has been widely viewed as a failure, questions remain about his recruitment of private-sector volunteers with potential conflicts of interest. We’re suing multiple agencies for records.
ICE Records of Detention Center Complaints: Covid-19 has been rapidly spreading through jails and detention centers, where people remain particularly vulnerable to the disease’s transmission thanks to crowded conditions and poor access to medical care. As cases surge, we’re suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement for records of any formal written or emergency grievances filed at six different facilities since March 1.
Ohio Prisons and Covid-19: Jails and prisons in Ohio have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, with more than 75 deaths in the state and one prison ranked as the largest outbreak in any U.S. institution. We filed a number of requests with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for records regarding testing, risk assessments, and communications about outbreaks in facilities. We also filed similar requests with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Wisconsin Documents Provide Window into Early Uncertainty over Covid-19: The latest records obtained by American Oversight include a number of emails from Wisconsin public health officials that reveal confusion and misgivings about recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. Among the communications are prescient comments from health officials, such as “This makes me less hopeful that [Covid-19] is going to be contained easily” and other emails about the risks of asymptomatic transmission. You can read more here.
Testing Challenges: Even as many states begin relaxing social distancing measures, the United States still lags behind other countries in testing capacity thanks to limited support from the federal government. In a recent interview, Trump even said that testing for the coronavirus was “overrated,” punctuating his repeated (and nonsensical) argument that more tests lead to more cases. We filed FOIA requests with the CDC to shed light on how the agency is coordinating with states and laboratories with regard to testing and tracking of cases.
Congressional Records Requests: The Trump administration has produced thousands of pages of documents in response to congressional inquiries concerning Ukrainian company Burisma Holdings and former Vice President Joe Biden. In contrast, the Departments of State and the Treasury have been far less responsive to requests from other high-profile inquiries — or not responsive at all. We filed FOIA requests with both departments for any directives or instructions regarding the processing of congressional records requests since November 2019.
Paycheck Protection Program Recipient List: The Small Business Administration (SBA) had previously said that it would release information on the recipients of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. But the agency has since announced that it won’t disclose which businesses received the more than $500 billion in taxpayer-backed loans. We filed a FOIA request with SBA for records sufficient to show the recipients.
Removing Contraception Images in Health Education Materials: In February, Vice reported on records we obtained through FOIA that show that Department of Health and Human Services officials decided to remove condom imagery from HIV-awareness materials. The emails reference “unapproved” contraception imagery, prompting questions about how the agency is approaching sexual health education initiatives. We asked HHS for orders or protocols regarding the use of imagery in reproductive health materials, including on the topics of contraception, abortion, and abstinence.
Bad Credit (Union) History: Early last year, then-Chairman J. Mark McWatters of the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) was criticized for lavish spending on fine dining, liquor, and travel — and running the Virginia-based agency from his home in Texas. More recently, press reporting indicates that former NCUA General Counsel Michael McKenna routinely drank alcohol, smoked marijuana, and visited strip clubs during business hours. We’re asking to see the calendars of the new NCUA head, Rodney Hood, to assess whether the ethics-challenged agency has successfully turned over a new leaf.
Paula White’s Role in the White House: In November 2019, it was reported that Paula White, televangelist and Trump’s longtime “spiritual adviser,” planned to join the White House as an official aide. That same month, White launched the One Voice Prayer Movement (OVPM), which now effectively operates as a public relations outlet for the president. She continues to head OVPM while simultaneously working with the administration, though the White House later clarified that she only works part-time (and is therefore not required to file a public financial disclosure form). Last month, OVPM put out a “prayer alert” and urged church leaders to contact the Justice Department if state or community leaders attempt to keep places of worship closed during the Covid-19 outbreak. We filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department for communications with White and her associates.
Transportation Inspector General Changes: Last month, Justice Department Counsel Eric Soskin was named as Trump’s intended nominee for inspector general at the Department of Transportation. At the Justice Department, Soskin has defended some of Trump’s more contentious policies, including those related to the administration’s hardline immigration agenda. Concerns have risen over the dismissal of the Transportation Department’s previous inspector general, Mitchell Behm, during an investigation of Secretary Elaine Chao, as well as over the ability of the current acting IG, Howard “Skip” Elliot, to conduct independent investigations. We filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department for Soskin’s communications with White House officials, including White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller. We also asked the Transportation Department for Elliot’s resume, calendars, and ethics documents.
Trump’s Science Adviser and Climate Change: When meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier became Trump’s new science adviser in early 2019, there were initial hopes that the scientist would be able to convince the president that climate change was both real and a threat. In public interviews, however, Droegemeier ducked questions about the human role in climate change, and climate skeptics close to the White House have continued to challenge the scientific consensus. The administration is now in the process of planning for the Fifth National Climate Assessment, scheduled to be released in 2022, an effort in which Droegemeier would play a central role. We’re seeking his emails containing key terms related to climate change as well as his communications with conservative activists and fossil fuel industry lobbying groups.
Postmaster Resignation and Administration Pressure on USPS: In April, the Trump administration threatened to reject Covid-19 aid for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), despite the agency providing essential services nationwide, including delivering medical supplies, absentee ballots, and census materials. USPS was able to continue operations thanks to a loan ultimately included in the Covid-19 relief bill, but the administration has since hinted it may impose other terms to the loan that could dramatically change how USPS functions. More recently, Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman resigned from his position in May after serving 9 years at USPS. We asked USPS for Stroman’s resignation letter and communications.
Calendars of Immigration Official Replaced in Political Shakeup: In February, the career official serving as deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Mark Koumans, was replaced by a political appointee, reportedly at the request of acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and the White House. The move came just days before a federal judge ruled that the acting director of USCIS, Ken Cuccinelli, had been unlawfully installed in his position. Koumans had been running daily operations at USCIS for nearly a year when he was pushed out. We’re seeking the release of his calendars from that time period as part of our ongoing investigation into the Trump administration’s handling of immigration policy.
Seeking Further Answers about the USDA Kansas City Relocation: Two divisions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are currently in the process of relocating from Washington, D.C., to a privately owned building in Kansas City, Mo. — a move that has prompted many experienced employees to leave the agency, delayed the publication of important research reports, and halted the release of millions of dollars in federal funding. We’ve partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to investigate the relocation, and we’re now asking USDA to release copies of related records it provided to key members of Congress.
Republican Convention in Jacksonville: Last week, the Republican National Committee (RNC) announced that it would hold its 2020 conference in Jacksonville, Fla. The RNC selected Jacksonville after negotiations to have the conference in North Carolina fell through over Covid-19 public health precautions that North Carolina state officials wanted to implement. We filed records requests with the Florida Department of Health, the governor’s office, and the office of the mayor of Jacksonville for emails with the RNC, the Republican National Convention, or the Trump campaign about hosting the national conference in Jacksonville.
Part of Investigation: