Two Years of American Oversight

American Oversight opened its doors on March 13, 2017, with the aim of using the tools available to average citizens, including the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to hold the Trump administration accountable.

In the past two years, we’ve filed 1,972 public records requests (as of the time of the time of posting) and nearly 100 lawsuits. We have uncovered evidence of corruption and misconduct ranging from the abuse of public funds for luxury travel or office redecoration, to the use of private email systems in the White House, to political appointees giving insider access to campaign donors and industry groups.

You can see the FOIAs, lawsuits, and records we’ve uncovered here in our documents library, and we’ve pulled together a list of the highlights of our investigations and actions from the past two years below:

Parallel Investigations: Amplifying Congressional Oversight

For most of the first two years of the Trump administration, Congress sat on the sidelines and refused to conduct oversight even as the scandals piled up. That changed in January of this year, and American Oversight was ready. Since the middle of 2018, we’ve been filing FOIA requests targeting records that would likely become the subject of congressional investigations — such as the administration’s family-separation policy and the failed responses to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. If the Trump administration tries to stonewall Congress or refuse to answer questions, we’re prepared to go to court to force the release of records. We’ve already begun filing lawsuits to enforce FOIA requests that parallel congressional document requests, and we’re continuing to submit new FOIAs as more and more House committees begin launching investigations.

Ivanka Trump’s Personal Email Use

In March 2017, we filed FOIA requests for communications between the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and several federal agencies. Ms. Trump had initially announced that she would be only an informal adviser to her father, rather than an official government employee, raising concerns that she could avoid ethics requirements while still influencing federal policy. We later sued to release the records, and four agencies produced records of Ms. Trump’s emails, including several messages that were sent to and from a non-government, dot-com account belonging to the president’s oldest daughter.

More than a year later, on November 19, 2018, the Washington Post reported that our FOIAs and lawsuit sparked an internal White House investigation and prompted the discovery that Ivanka Trump had used personal email for government business on hundreds of occasions. American Oversight immediately called on Congress to investigate. During the 2016 presidential campaign and after, President Trump and congressional leaders repeatedly stated that Hillary Clinton should face criminal consequences for her personal email use. The president’s family is not above the law.

Investigating the Voter Fraud Commission

In January 2018, President Trump disbanded the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (PACEI) just weeks after a federal judge had ordered the group to release its records to our client, commission member and Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. We continued fighting on behalf of Secretary Dunlap, and later in the year, more than 8,000 pages of commission records were finally released, confirming what many had suspected all along: The voter fraud commission found no new evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Audit the Wall: No Plans or Progress

One of our first major projects was an investigation of President Trump’s much-hyped wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. We filed dozens of FOIA requests — and ultimately several lawsuits — to find out if Trump appointees were following the law as they began building the nearly 2,000-mile wall the president had promised.

Instead, we found little to no evidence that the administration was actually moving forward on the wall project at all. Despite the rhetoric coming from the White House, the responses from agency after agency revealed that Trump administration officials were not actually taking the kind of steps that would be needed to build a wall along the border. We published our findings last year — and we’re continuing to monitor the administration’s policies along the border, including the emergency declaration and the deployment of military personnel.

Ben Carson Family’s Influence at HUD

Since early 2018, American Oversight has been investigating the many instances in which Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Carson has allowed his family members to be involved in department operations, despite warnings from ethics officials. After Carson claimed he was not involved in the controversial attempted purchase of a $31,000 dining set for his office, American Oversight obtained records in March 2018 showing that the “Secretary and Mrs. Carson” had picked it out themselves.

Earlier this month, we published records from the Baltimore City government in which Ben Carson Jr., the son of the secretary of housing and urban development, pushed to include two neighborhoods on the secretary’s 2017 Baltimore “listening tour” that his company, Interprise Partners, was considering making investments in. The email records raise serious concerns about whether HUD has taken action to benefit Carson Jr.’s private business interests, and about the larger role the secretary’s family has played at HUD.

We’ve also been investigating a no-bid contract worth nearly half a million dollars that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services awarded to the company of Ben Carson’s daughter-in-law.

Wilbur Ross’ Complex Financial Holdings

Billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ web of criss-crossing financial interests can be difficult to keep track of — making it virtually impossible for Americans to know whether Ross could personally benefit from the decisions he makes. In a report on Ross’ repeated failures to divest certain financial assets, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity highlighted American Oversight’s investigation of the secretary’s vast financial holdings, including a breakdown of just a small portion of them.

American Oversight also obtained Ross’ 2017 calendars, which show numerous industry meetings and potential conflicts of interest. On multiple occasions, Ross met with the CEO of Cheniere Energy, a natural gas exporter linked to a shipping company Ross had a financial interest in — and made a profit from while in office. Last year, Forbes reported on a meeting Ross had with the CEO of Chevron while his wife had a financial stake in the company; the calendars we published revealed that the meeting agenda was to “[s]hare Chevron’s perspectives on global oil and gas developments and to discuss tax reform and trade.”

Underqualified Political Appointees in Key Positions

We obtained résumés from across the administration of appointees with meager professional experience working in high-profile positions. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) résumés show that G. Payne Griffin, who was an intern for the Republican National Committee before joining USTR, became one of the most senior officials tasked with overseeing the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. A 24-year-old worked as the deputy chief of staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy before leaving the administration. The only post-college professional experience on his résumé was working for the Trump campaign.

The pattern was the same at HUD, where documents we uncovered showed that Secretary Carson installed two dozen political appointees with no experience in housing policy and offered promotions to five operatives who had worked on either the Carson or Trump presidential campaigns. Former Trump family employee Lynne Patton, whose resume incorrectly overstates her educational background – started out as an adviser to Carson before being promoted to oversee federal housing programs in New York and New Jersey. We also obtained and released résumés from the Department of Health and Human Services showing ties to the pharmaceutical industry and anti-abortion-rights groups.

News reports and documents we’ve uncovered reveal a pattern of high-level administration positions going to those who listed their work for the Trump or other Republican campaigns on their resumes. American Oversight has been investigating expectations of loyalty across the administration, as well as reported attempts to purge those perceived as being disloyal.

Secret Calendars and Insider Access

A cabinet official’s calendars can tell us a lot about an agency’s priorities. For the past two years, American Oversight has been filing FOIAs and lawsuits to compel the release of the calendars maintained by senior Trump administration appointees and their aides to find out how they spend their time – and to see who is getting access to the highest levels of our government.

In response to one of our lawsuits, the Treasury Department released a previously hidden version of Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s calendar, showing that he had met repeatedly with Trump inaugural committee chair Tom Barrack at a time when Barrack was reportedly working to profit from his insider access to the administration.

In late 2017, our work revealed that former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s schedule was heavily biased in favor of energy and chemical industry groups and against environmental advocates. Just this past week, we uncovered a similar pattern at the Department of Labor, where Secretary Alex Acosta spent his first months in office meeting with business executives and groups rather than organizations representing American workers.

We also obtained calendars from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ first six months in office, from February 8 through July 19, 2017, which show that she not only prioritized meetings with religious and charter schools, she also prioritized time off. In just that half-year, she took eleven long weekends. See our breakdown of the calendars here.

Scott Pruitt’s Soundproof Booth Cost $43,000 — Not $25,000

During his time in the administration, Pruitt racked up at least 13 ethics investigations. Pruitt misused hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for personal benefit — from first-class travel to unnecessary spending on security. In March 2018, we obtained records of Pruitt’s office renovation expenses, which showed that the soundproof booth that was originally reported to cost $25,000 actually cost $43,000. Further records showed that the decision to install the booth as well as new biometric locks on Pruitt’s office raised concerns from career officials about the improper allocation of government funds.

Scott Pruitt wasn’t the only Trump administration official who misused taxpayer funds. We’ve been investigating the use of chartered flights for government travel — uncovering records showing that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent over $1 million flying home to Texas and to other locations around the country on government aircraft. We also found unnecessary office upgrade spending by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Trump’s Transgender Ban Caught the Pentagon Off Guard

In his surprise July 2017 tweet announcing a ban on transgender people serving openly in the military, Trump claimed he had consulted with “my Generals and military experts.” Defense Department emails we obtained through FOIA litigation in September 2018 show that officials were not expecting the policy change and wrote things like “Wow – that was a surprise” and “Everyone was caught flat-footed.” See the full email exchange here.

No Ethics Guidance for Spending Taxpayer Money at Trump-Owned Properties

American Oversight requested that more than two dozen government departments and agencies provide copies of any ethics guidance issued to employees about spending taxpayer money at Trump-owned businesses. So far, 14 agencies have responded that they could not locate any records, and no other office has yet provided any general guidance. Without such ethics standards, there is potential for government employees to spend federal funds at Trump properties to ingratiate themselves with the president, or for them to be coerced into financially benefiting the president — who, by refusing to financially divest from his businesses, is breaking decades of precedent.

See our ongoing investigation into the ways Trump and his family have profited off the presidency.

CBP Employees Reminded Not to Use Dehumanizing Language

In October 2017, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used the hashtag #CatchOfTheDay on Twitter along with photos of immigrants apprehended at the border. American Oversight filed a FOIA request and later sued to find out more about the use of the hashtag. Two days after we filed our FOIA request, a CBP official reminded employees not to use dehumanizing language to describe immigrants, stating that it is “appropriate for fish … but not in reference to people.

Fighting to Expose Brett Kavanaugh’s Record

As it became increasingly clear that the Senate was not going to fully vet then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, American Oversight took action to uncover his record. Our litigation on behalf of six members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, legal watchdog Fix the Court, and Lambda Legal helped to force transparency of key documents before the confirmation vote — including a long-secret report on leaks from the Starr Commission, on which Kavanaugh once worked — and we expect to continue obtaining and releasing records over the coming months.

Jeff Sessions Failed to Disclose Russian Contacts on His SF-86

In March 2017, the Washington Post reported that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 presidential campaign. American Oversight sued the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get the page of Sessions’ security clearance application on which he was required to list any contacts with foreign government. In July 2017, the Justice Department released a single, heavily redacted page of Sessions’ SF-86 security clearance application form, confirming that Sessions had checked “no” in response to the question about foreign contacts. Read more about our investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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