News Roundup: The Hatch Act and Freedom of Speech

Last year, the agency charged with protecting whistleblowers sent a chill across the federal workforce, warning public employees not to use terms like “#resist” while at work and admonishing them that they cannot engage in advocacy around whether President Donald Trump should or should not be impeached. In the Office of Special Counsel’s view, that kind of activity is indistinguishable from the partisan political activity prohibited by the Hatch Act. At the same time, we have witnessed White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway routinely and brazenly violating the Hatch Act by engaging in Trump 2020 advocacy from the White House lawn. The White House has ignored the OSC’s recommendation that she resign or be fired.

This week, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against OSC on behalf of the largest federal employee union, the American Federation of Government Employees, to compel the office to rescind the impeachment and resistance guidance and protect workers’ First Amendment rights. “By equating conscientious objections grounded in the Constitution with partisan political activity, the OSC’s guidance has achieved a result it was created to avoid — it makes public service political and undermines the guardrails of good government,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director.

At best, OSC’s November 2018 Hatch Act guidance regarding discussions of “resistance” and impeachment is confusing. At worst, especially as the Trump administration signals its selective approach to enforcing the decades-old law, the guidance could have a chilling effect on federal workers’ speech. Given the Trump administration’s unparalleled corruption and the abuses of power happening across the government, federal workers need to be able to speak up about misconduct. 

Here’s what else has happened this week, from harsher immigration policies to weaker endangered species protections:

Cuccinelli Rewrites Emma Lazarus: According to Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli, the famous poem on the Statue of Liberty that says, “Give me your tired, your poor,” only referred to “people coming from Europe.” Cuccinelli offered this racist reinterpretation in his defense of the administration’s decision to issue a new rule that would deny poor immigrants permanent status if they were deemed likely to use public assistance programs. We’ve filed FOIA requests for Cuccinelli’s emails with White House aide Stephen Miller, and are also investigating his outside influences and any perks he gets from his reported close relationship with Trump.

Endangering the Endangered Species Act: The Trump administration also took aim this week at the Endangered Species Act, issuing new rules that would weaken protections and clear the way for more mining and fossil fuels development in areas inhabited by protected species. We’ve filed a number of FOIA requests for communications between Congress and federal agencies about the ESA, and have been investigating the oil and gas industry’s influence on the administration.

VA External Influences: We obtained more records showing the high-level influence that outside groups — including three members of Mar-a-Lago and the Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America — have exerted over veterans policy. And included in those documents is yet another instance of an administration official, former VA Secretary David Shulkin, using personal email for official business.

Secret Service Spending: Politico reported this week that while Donald Trump Jr. went on a hunting trip in Canada in 2017, the Secret Service agents accompanying him spent thousands of taxpayer dollars at the Trump International Hotel and Tower Vancouver — money that, of course, goes straight to the pockets of the president.

Trump’s False Statements: Illegal immigration is one of the many subjects in which the president regularly employs made-up facts and figures to support his arguments. After we filed a FOIA request related to Trump’s tweet that the cost of illegal immigration in January alone had been more than $18 billion, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that it had no numbers to back up Trump’s extraordinary claim. In December of last year, Trump had similarly tweeted that the annual cost of illegal immigration was $250 billion — he of course provided no evidence, and experts have said the figure is “frankly absurd.” We filed a FOIA request with the Office of Management and Budget to learn whether the agency has conducted any analysis that supports or refutes the president’s claims.

Liquefied Natural Gas Transport: Earlier this year, the president issued an executive order directing the Department of Transportationto propose a rule allowing liquefied natural gas to be transported by rail tank cars. In June, the Trump administration announced that the company Energy Transport Solutions had applied for a special permit to transport the dangerous liquid in trains up to 100 cars long, raising serious concerns about the danger of moving such large quantities at high speeds through densely populated areas. We’re asking for communications between Transportation Department or Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration officials and individuals associated with Energy Transport Solutions.

Franchise Wage Claims: Under joint-employer guidelines laid out by the Obama administration, a large company could be held liable for minimum-wage or overtime violations on the part of its franchisees. But a recent Trump administration proposal would limit claims against those companies, hindering the ability of millions of workers to pursue wage claims. We’re asking for communications between Labor Department officials and representatives of corporations like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Burger King.

Trump and Domestic Terrorism: An ABC News analysis found at least 36 cases of acts or threats of violence in which the perpetrators invoked Trump in direct connection with their actions. Despite the documented rise of right-wing domestic terrorism in recent years, the Trump administration has scaled back the government’s efforts in combating the growing crisis. We’re investigating significant cuts to funding as well as the installation of political appointees with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views.

Perdue’s Georgia Ties: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue entered office with a lengthy ethics recusal letter and an extensive financial disclosure report that included a web of Georgia-based entities. As Georgia governor, Perdue continued to own or help run four farming-related family businesses, and American Oversight obtained calendars, reported on by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, showing that Perdue “has been a frequent presence in Georgia” during his time in the administration. We’ve filed multiple FOIA requests with the Department of Agriculture for Perdue’s communications to learn whether and to what extent the secretary has privileged his Georgia or business ties.

Perry’s Campaign Donations: While running for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination, now-Energy Secretary Rick Perry benefited from millions in donations from people associated with the energy industry, including $6 million from Dallas billionaire and Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren. To learn whether the secretary’s campaign supporters have attempted to influence federal policy, we’ve filed a FOIA request for Perry’s communications with a number of major donors.

Perry’s Trip to Ukraine: In May, Perry led a U.S. delegation to Ukraine in which he attended the inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a number of meetings about energy security. We want more information about the delegation, including its members and its itinerary, and have also asked for Energy and State Department delegation communications about the trip, or with the private equity firm SigmaBleyzer, which is headed by the Ukrainian-born Michael Bleyzer.

Whitaker’s Ethics Forms: According to Buzzfeed News, just weeks before the president tapped Matthew Whitaker to be acting attorney general in 2018, the Justice Department’s ethics office realized that no one had reviewed Whitaker’s financial disclosure forms. He had been working at the Justice Department for nearly a year as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff. On top of that, the forms were incomplete. Whitaker is no longer in the administration, but his short stint raised many concerns about his political and financial conflicts of interest.

Azar White House Meeting: Earlier this year, we obtained calendars from the Department of Health and Human Services that showed a number of meetings with conservative groups opposed to the Affordable Care Act. And just last month, HHS Secretary Alex Azar participated in a White House meeting with “conservative leaders” like the Cato Institute, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks “to talk health care.” We’re asking HHS for records from that meeting.

Russia in Kentucky: We filed two new FOIA requests in our investigation of the $200 million investment by a Russian firm — which had previously been under U.S. sanctions — in a Kentucky aluminum plant.

Surgeon General’s Priorities: We’re looking into whether and to what extent outside entities are influencing the work of Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and filed FOIA requests with Health and Human Services for his communications with anti-vaccination groups, the gun lobby and e-cigarette companies.