News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

San Ysidro

When it comes to hearing from its own investigators, it wasn’t a very good week for the administration. On Wednesday, the Inspector General for the General Services Administration — the agency that leases the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. — released a report finding that the GSA had ignored the Constitution in its decision to continuing leasing the building to President Trump after his election.

The report said that “GSA recognized that the President’s business interest in the OPO lease raised issues under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses that might cause a breach of the lease,” but that lawyers decided to “ignore” the issue. The terms of the lease prohibit elected officials from profiting off of it, which also calls into question GSA’s decision to continue the lease after the election.

Trump’s financial conflicts of interest have for the past two years converged at his D.C. hotel, located just a few blocks from the White House. It has been the center of intense scrutiny over how much of the money spent by visiting foreign dignitaries has made its way to the Trump Organization — and to the pockets of the president himself — and American Oversight is investigating whether it was a factor in the president’s interference with plans to relocate the nearby FBI headquarters. Most recently, the Old Post Office Tower, a Natural Parks Service site that is connected to the hotel, has remained open despite what is now the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. We’re investigating that decision, too — and so is Sen. Gary Peters, the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But that’s not all. The day after the GSA inspector general released its report, the watchdog for the Department of Health and Human Services stated that thousands more migrant children were separated from their parents at the border than was previously known, eliciting calls for Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to resign. DHS and the Department of Justice had announced the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy in the spring of 2018, but the HHS inspector general found that employees in HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement had in the summer of 2017 already noticed a significant increase in the number of children separated.

Most alarming is the news that the actual number of separated children remains unknown — as is their status and whether they’ve been reunified with their parents. American Oversight is suing the administration for records of its family-separation policy, seeking information that could shed light on the policy’s origins as well as on the conditions within the detention facilities. At the same time, Rep. Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chair, has stated that his committee will conduct oversight of the policy as well.

And of course, if it weren’t enough for the administration to contend with its own internal investigations, congressional oversight and nonprofit watchdogs like American Oversight are continuing to investigate the Trump administration. Here’s what else has happened in the last week:

  • On Tuesday and Wednesday, William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing. Concerns about Barr’s control over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference have largely centered on whether Barr, who previously wrote an unsolicited memo criticizing the investigation, should recuse himself under federal ethics rules. But less attention has been paid to whether a different set of rules — those of the D.C. Bar, modeled on American Bar Association standards — could disqualify him from overseeing the investigation. Read our legal analysis here.
  • The application of the bar rules rests on meetings Barr had with Trump prior to his nomination, in which Trump tried to recruit him for his legal team. According to Barr’s testimony, Israel Ambassador David Friedman brought Barr to interview with the president. American Oversight has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what role Friedman has played in the Mueller probe, and we’re still looking for records of any communications Barr had with DOJ about the investigation.
  • A top official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development resigned following disagreements with the administration over housing policy and Trump’s reported desire to block Puerto Rico from receiving any disaster-relief funding after the 2017 hurricanes. American Oversight is suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency for records related to the administration’s failed response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which wiped out electricity for millions and killed thousands of Americans.
  • In 2018, American Oversight began investigating reports that an Israeli private intelligence organization called Black Cube had targeted former Obama officials in an attempt to discredit them for their work on the Iran nuclear deal. About five months after American Oversight’s FOIA request to the CIA, the agency replied by saying it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of [such] records,” since either possibility is classified. Such a response (known as a “Glomar”) of course reveals nothing, as is intended. But the CIA doesn’t always give such oblique responses: The same day American Oversight filed the Black Cube FOIA request, it also asked the agency for records that might expose whether the CIA or the U.S. Postal Service had mishandled requests for then–congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger’s security clearance form, which had been obtained by a Republican super PAC and used for political purposes during the campaign. In that case — in which it turned out the USPS had been the agency at fault — the CIA responded in just over a week to clear its name.
  • A year ago, the Washington Post reported that the company of the daughter-in-law of HUD Secretary Ben Carson earned a contract worth nearly half a million dollars with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Merlynn Carson’s company then received a second CMS contract in 2018 worth nearly $900,000. Neither contract was subjected to a competitive bidding process. This week, American Oversight submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find out if, and to what extent, Carson’s family is benefiting from federal policy.
  • A new court filing in Massachusetts indicates that the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, spent years misleading doctors and patients about the opioid’s dangers, with former Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler going so far as to suggest strongly blaming users who become addicted. Last summer, American Oversight demanded the release of documents that could provide information about the role that Rudy Giuliani played in hampering federal investigations into Purdue in the early 2000s. At the time, Giuliani was serving as a consultant to the Department of Justice on opioid issues while Purdue was working with Giuliani’s consulting firm.
  • In a continuation of its investigation into the government’s response to right-wing terrorism, including 2009 dismantling of DHS’s Extremism and Radicalization Branch, American Oversight submitted FOIA requests to uncover information about the role Katharine Gorka — a DHS policy adviser, and wife of former White House aide Sebastian Gorka — played in cutting funding for the Countering Violent Extremism program. Katharine Gorka has a long history of working with far-right national security groups.
  • Mari Stull, the former lobbyist and wine blogger allegedly running the Trump administration’s loyalty investigations at the State Department has left her post, but we’re still asking for her communications and calendars related to her review of employees’ social media.
  • A federal judge in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, saying that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the question was unlawful because of “a veritable smorgasbord of class, clear-cut” Administrative Procedure Act violations. American Oversight obtained Ross’ 2017 calendars, which show that he had numerous meetings related to the census, and we are still seeking records related to the Justice Department’s role in the decision.
  • The DOJ issued a new opinion on the 1961 Wire Act that could further restrict online gambling — something casino magnate and Trump donor Sheldon Adelson has long desired. American Oversight filed FOIA requests seeking any communications between the DOJ and outside groups and the White House regarding the Wire Act to find out if outside influence contributed to the department’s abrupt change in policy.
  • On Friday, Sen. Jeff Merkley revealed a leaked memo indicating the administration planned to manufacture a border crisis, a crisis that was the stated impetus for the sending of U.S. troops to the southern border in the fall. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (whose ties to Boeing we’re investigating) reportedly has approved troops remaining there until the end of September.

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