Who stands to gain? That question is at the core of so many investigations into corruption and misconduct in the Trump administration, from agency officials’ industry ties to the president’s own financial conflicts. And as the administration’s tragically mismanaged response to the coronavirus outbreak continues to lurch onward, the answers to that question are more important than ever.
Hedge funds are claiming small business relief money. Anti-abortion rights groups are clamoring for new restrictions on abortion care. Partisan interests are looking for ways to reduce access to the ballot in the presidential primary and November election.
American Oversight’s investigation into the administration’s response to the pandemic is looking into not only the early decisions that appear to have cost thousands of American lives, but also communications with external entities that may seek to influence the administration’s future decisions.
From the beginning of the outbreak, it was clear that President Donald Trump prioritized the short-term health of the stock market over Americans’ lives. On Thursday, as the number of Covid-19 deaths increased to more than 30,000, the White House unveiled “guidelines” for “opening up American again” that amounted to the president — who earlier this week claimed he could exercise “total authority” over the pandemic response — telling governors they could choose to reopen businesses May 1 or earlier. Meanwhile, the American Prospect reported that the Treasury Department had allowed banks to confiscate customers’ CARES Act stimulus checks to cover existing debts — a practice the veterans-serving USAA bank said on Thursday it will cease.
This week, we filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the Federal Reserve, the Department of the Treasury and the Small Business Administration for officials’ communications with key financial industry groups and bank executives, as well as for records from a White House meeting Trump had with bank executives back on March 11. We’re also looking into an arrangement the Treasury made with three Wall Street banks to advise on airline aid, and another agreement made for BlackRock to advise the Fed on the purchase of bonds and securities.
Abortion-rights opponents have also attempted to use the coronavirus outbreak to further their agendas, asking the administration to take steps to block abortion access as it responds to the pandemic. We’ve already been investigating Texas’s recent ban on abortion, and this week filed requests with the Department of Health and Human Services and Georgia agencies for any decision memoranda or outside communications about abortion access.
The past two weeks have also demonstrated the risks to voting rights, as officials in states like Texas and Georgia resist efforts to expand access to voting by mail. We filed a request for Georgia Secretary of State directives related to the decision to have voters pay postage costs on absentee ballots. (The state election board has since voted to allow voters to turn in ballots at drop boxes before Georgia’s June 9 primary.) And considerable outrage remains over the state supreme court having ordered Wisconsin to hold its April 7 in-person election, forcing voters to choose between their health and democratic participation — we filed a dozen records requests for state legislators’ and elections officials’ related communications.
But with Trump’s having ceded his “total authority” to governors, concerns remain about how individual states are responding to the crisis, especially Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis’s prolonged denial of the existence of community spread is looking increasingly ill-advised. To shed light on this delayed response, we filed records requests for Florida state agencies’ communications related to the spread of coronavirus, and we also want to know more about Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen his state’s beaches.
For more on what we’re investigating and what we’ve found, read on:
‘I Think I’m Going to Die’ — New Documents Related to Death of 8-Year-Old Boy in U.S. Custody: American Oversight obtained affidavits from Customs and Border Protection special agents, including one from an agent who interviewed the father of Felipe Gómez Alonzo, the Guatemalan boy who died in U.S. custody on Dec. 24, 2018. According to Buzzfeed, which reported on the documents, Felipe’s condition had worsened after he had been discharged from the hospital earlier that day. The affidavit released to us reveals that before he died, Felipe told his father that he thought he was going to die. You can read more about this heartbreaking story here.
American Oversight and Others Demand Oversight Provisions in Next Coronavirus Bill: On Monday, we joined other watchdog groups in releasing recommendations for greater accountability over coronavirus relief funding, including transparency on what resources have been provided to each state and what criteria were used by federal agencies in allocating those resources.
VA Sexual Assault Complaint and Retaliation: In February, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie dismissed Deputy Secretary James Byrne “due to loss of confidence” in his work. At that time, the department was facing criticism for how it handled an allegation by a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer who said she had been sexually assaulted at a VA facility. A few days later, the Washington Post reported that a high-ranking VA official had informed the committee that Wilkie had tried to discredit the staffer, raising new questions about Byrne’s firing. Wilkie had also reportedly solicited information about her from Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who had previously been deployed with the staffer on the same mission while they were in the Navy. (A Crenshaw spokesperson has denied this allegation.) We filed FOIA requests to the VA for senior officials’ communications (including emails with Crenshaw or his staff) regarding the allegation, as well as for emails between Byrne and Wilkie in the days before Byrne’s dismissal.
Anti-Refugee Activist’s Influence: The number of refugee resettlements in the U.S. continues to plummet alongside efforts to block asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and to ban travel from multiple Muslim-majority countries. Reporting suggests that Ann Corcoran, the activist founder of the “Refugee Resettlement Watch” blog, has gained influence in broader immigration discussions with figures close to the administration. We’re asking the State Department for the emails of specific officials with or about Corcoran.
Voting Discrimination Claims in Georgia: As part of our State Accountability Project work in Georgia, this week we asked the Georgia Secretary of State and the Georgia Department of Administrative Services for the amount of funds paid by the state to settle voting discrimination claims, including those brought under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
New Documents — Perdue Family Emails and Trey Gowdy Request: This week, we published USDA communications with U.S. senator from Georgia David Perdue’s office as part of our ongoing investigation into Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s business ties with Georgia-based entities, including his own family’s company. The records include a number of communications in which Sen. Perdue’s staff shared with the USDA the resumes of multiple candidates for USDA positions. We also published more DHS calendar entries and email communications, including a 2017 email chain among agency officials about preparing a redacted individual’s USCIS immigration file (known as an A-file) for then-Rep. Trey Gowdy and the House Oversight Committee.
John Gore’s Personal Emails: We recently published emails that former Justice Department official John Gore, who had been involved in the administration’s failed push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, had sent from his personal account. (You can read more about the story behind those emails here.) The emails include messages to an attorney at Jones Day regarding an ACLU sanctions motion that followed the discovery of files belonging to the late Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller — files that helped expose the partisan motivations of the question.
Part of Investigation: