During ordinary times, government transparency is what maintains a functioning democracy. But during a public health emergency like the coronavirus outbreak, it can also save lives.
As both the federal and state governments take extraordinary steps and exercise broad power in response to the coronavirus, holding officials accountable for their decisions is vital — especially as states are being left to compete over resources thanks to inadequate assistance from the Trump administration. Unfortunately, specific actions of the administration, from the unjustified classification of certain meetings to long extensions on responding to Freedom of Information Act obligations, have raised concerns about the ability of the public to receive relevant information. You can read more about that here.
American Oversight will continue to fight for transparency, and has already filed more than 100 FOIA and public records requests related to the coronavirus with federal and state agencies. In just the past week, we’ve requested any communications that Florida health and emergency officials had with federal officials, as well as transcripts or summaries from CDC COVID-19 Public Health Response operations calls with state officials. We also recently published more than 11,000 pages of CDC Director Robert Redfield’s calendar records from March 2018 to March 2019, revealing a number of briefings and presentations about the U.S.’s preparedness for a pandemic, some from around the same time that the White House was making disastrous decisions to endanger that preparedness.
Our investigation into the administration’s coronavirus response is wide-ranging. We’re looking into Trump’s 2018 disbandment of the National Security Council’s pandemic team; the early testing shortages and logistics failures that have put millions of lives in danger; the White House’s misguided emphasis on messaging control and political spin; and how many of these decisions impact the most vulnerable, from those in detention centers to people who will bear the negative impacts of Trump’s immigration-focused rhetoric.
And of course, since industry influence is a running theme of the Trump presidency, we’re also looking into how the financial industry and other special interests are inserting themselves into the coronavirus response. Despite what Trump said earlier this week — “I’ll be the oversight” — when asked about what kind of oversight there would be on the corporate $500 billion pot in the relief bill that worked its way toward passage this past week, experience tells us that the American people cannot allow him to “be the oversight.”
Trump’s comment on Monday led senators to include in the bill measures like an accountability committee to actually oversee how the money is being spent. In an interview with NPR, American Oversight’s Molly Claflin said that while “there’s going to be fraud, there’s going to be waste in some of these recovery funds,” the oversight measures “at least give Congress, the [Government Accountability Office], and the inspectors general the mechanisms to try to hold things accountable and make sure the funds are spent in the most responsible way to benefit the American people.”
Here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:
Expanding Our State Project: This week, we officially launched voting rights investigations in Wisconsin and New Hampshire as part of our State Accountability Project. In Wisconsin, we’re asking questions about the state’s recent voter roll purge attempts, currently the subject of a court battle. An estimated 209,000 voters could be removed from the rolls if the purge proceeds, and we’ve filed requests with multiple Wisconsin entities and legislators for communications with key interest groups. We’re also working in New Hampshire to uncover information surrounding Gov. Chris Sununu’s unexpected veto of a bill creating an independent redistricting commission, which had been passed by the state’s legislature with bipartisan support.
Mark Meadows’s Transition to the White House: Earlier this month, Trump announced on Twitter that Rep. Mark Meadows would be appointed to the position of White House chief of staff. Meadows said he plans to resign from the House to become chief of staff at the end of March, but reports indicate he has been attending high-ranking meetings with administration officials. Earlier this week, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow referred to Meadows as the chief of staff, and questions have been raised about Meadows’s role in negotiations between the executive and legislative branches over the coronavirus emergency aid package. The U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits someone from serving in Congress while also holding another government position, so we filed FOIA requests to multiple agencies for emails and text messages among senior agency officials concerning Meadows’s appointment.
Violence Against Migrants in Detention Centers: Inspections of facilities detaining migrants have repeatedly found inadequate medical care and poor living conditions. In one unannounced inspection of Adelanto Detention Facility back in May 2018, the DHS inspector general found that the in-house dentist failed to provide cleanings or fillings and recommended that detainees use strings from their socks as dental floss. In December 2019, the Trump administration released new detention standards that the ACLU has reported will weaken the record-keeping requirements related to detainee deaths, which continue to mount. The coronavirus outbreak only makes the situation more serious. We submitted FOIA requests to DHS for records regarding inspections, management, incident reports, and contracts of detainment facilities, as well as a request for reports about individuals who have died in DHS custody. We’ve also filed requests for coronavirus-related communications with DHS, CBP, and ICE.
Remain in Mexico: Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court reversed its suspension of its Remain in Mexico policy, despite rampant violence against migrants, including children, forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to proceed. Amnesty International has called the policy “an international disgrace,” and in January the nonprofit group Human Rights First released a disturbing report on its impact on asylum-seekers. Meanwhile, we recently published records obtained under FOIA showing agency officials referring to a report on asylum decisions as the “‘Hunger Games’ report.” We filed FOIA requests with multiple DHS offices for Remain in Mexico–related communications among high-level staff, for U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services communications containing the term “Hunger Games,” and for memos concerning the administration’s family-separation policy.
Behind the Scenes on Immigration Policy: We’re still investigating White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller and his influence on immigration-related policy across the federal government. This week, we filed a request to DHS for Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary Katie Waldman’s communications with or about Miller. Waldman, now married to Miller, previously worked under former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. We also asked DHS for the communications, resume, and ethics records of Colton Overcash, a recently appointed DHS senior official who previously worked at the anti-immigrant group the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers to be a hate group. Meanwhile, immigration judges are quitting their jobs in response to the Trump administration’s policies. We filed a FOIA request to the Executive Office for Immigration Review for communications concerning the resignation of a former immigration judge to learn more about why they are leaving their posts at this critical time.
Defense Employees’ Labor Rights: In January, Trump signed a memorandum authorising Defense Secretary Mark Esper to exclude Defense agencies and subdivisions — including military departments — from a labor-relations statute that provides collective-bargaining rights for many federal employees. This grants Esper significant power over the labor rights of Defense employees under specific circumstances related to national security, and could potentially curb unionization across the department. We filed a FOIA request to multiple agencies for any guidance or directives concerning the restriction of collective-bargaining rights for federal employees.
OPM Director’s Sudden Departure: Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Dale Cabaniss abruptly resigned earlier this month due to, as Politico reported, “poor treatment” by John McEntee, the head of the Presidential Personnel Office. McEntee has reportedly been coordinating efforts to purge “disloyal” government officials and replace them with Trump allies. The administration also recently got criticism for hiring Trump supporters in their early twenties, including one who is still a college senior, for official positions at the White House. We’ve been investigating the administration’s post-impeachment purges and loyalty tests, and this week we asked for Cabaniss’s communications leading up to his departure as well as his resignation letter to learn more about why he left.
Overreach at the Justice Department: Last month, Attorney General William Barr confirmed that he set up an “intake process in the field” to receive information from the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani about former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. According to reports, the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh is involved in Barr’s “intake process.” The White House historically has had limited communication with Justice Department prosecutors regarding ongoing investigations, much less official information-sharing procedures. We asked the DOJ for communications between the office of U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Scott Brady and White House officials.
Trump’s Trade Policy Conflicts: Trump continues to profit from the Trump Organization, and since he assumed office, 65 of his businesses have secured foreign trademarks, raising questions about whether he has been using trade policy to benefit his family’s financial interests. We’ve been following Trump’s refusal to financially divest from his business since 2017, and this week we filed FOIA requests with the General Services Administration for the 2019 profit statements from the Trump International Hotel, which occupies federal property, as well as with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative for communications with the Trump Organization.
Influence at the FEC: James Trainor, a former attorney for the anti-regulation nonprofit Empower Texans, was nominated by Trump in 2017 to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Trainor, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, is an advocate for campaign-finance deregulation and maintains strong ties to Texas state government officials. If confirmed, Trainor would be at the head of the federal regulatory agency responsible for enforcing federal campaign-finance laws. We asked the Texas offices of the governor, the attorney general, and the secretary of state for communications with Trainor or his former employer, Empower Texas. We also filed a request for communications between FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter and individuals who have prominently advocated for wider restrictions on voting, including former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Florida Elections: Earlier this month, a canvasser for the nonprofit Florida First was charged with fraudulently registering both Democrat and independent voters as Republicans without their knowledge or consent. Florida First is connected to the conservative super PAC America First Action, which supports “Trump loyalists” and conservative interests. We submitted public records requests with the Florida governor, secretary of state, and attorney general for communications between state officials and Florida First or America First Action. We also filed requests with multiple Florida entities for communications with the Honest Elections Project and the Public Interest Legal Foundation as part of our investigation into the restoration of voting rights for Florida voters with prior felony convictions.
Election Machines in Georgia: Earlier this year, Georgia voters were invited by state and county officials to try out new electronic voting machines before the primary election. Some voting-rights advocates are concerned about election security because electronic machines are difficult to audit and easy to hack, something that should be concerning to Gov. Brian Kemp, who accused the Georgia Democratic Party of attempting to hack into the state’s voter registration system in 2018. State investigators and the attorney general’s office found no evidence to back Kemp’s claims. We filed open records requests with multiple Georgia counties, as well as with the Georgia secretary of state’s office, for records concerning the voting-machine demonstrations. We also asked the secretary of secretary’s office and the office of the governor for communications or materials that Kemp, previously the secretary of state, relied on as evidence for his allegations.
Trump Tariffs and Kentucky Metal: In 2018, Trump directed the Department of Commerce to impose tariffs on select goods, including metals such as aluminium and steel. This raised expenses for manufacturers while benefiting some domestic producers. One of these producers is Century Aluminum, which operates a plant in Hawesville, Ky., and provides a case study in how propping up one sector of the economy can come at the expense of others. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross initially downplayed concerns about the impact of the tariffs on manufacturers reliant on imported metals, but Trump’s trade war with China is estimated to have cost the economy hundred of thousands of jobs. We filed a FOIA request with the Department of Commerce for communications with Sen. Mitch McConnell regarding the aluminum industry in Kentucky.
TVA Calendars and Nuclear Plant Deal: We recently published the calendars of William Johnson, the former CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), who left the TVA for a position at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. After his departure, an inspector general’s report revealed Johnson and other TVA executives indulged in luxury travel and dining on the TVA’s dime — and our calendars show Johnson’s penchant for fancy meals as well as his close relationship to the nuclear energy industry. We also published TVA and Department of Energy records regarding the potential acquisition of Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant by Nuclear Development LLC, a company founded by real-estate developer Franklin Haney Sr., who contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and reportedly agreed to pay Michael Cohen to help get funding for the Bellefonte project.
Part of Investigation: