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FOIA Finds 28 Trump Deregulation Team Members with Potential Conflicts of Interest: FRINFORMSUM 7/13/2017

July 13, 2017

Trump’s Deregulation Teams

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, interviews, and public records helped The New York Times and ProPublica identify 71 appointees to the Trump administration’s deregulation teams at agencies across the government, including 28 members with potential conflicts of interest. The Times notes, “Some appointees are reviewing rules their previous employers sought to weaken or kill, and at least two may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone.”

Highlights of the findings include:

  • Two deregulation team members at the Education Department worked previously for pro-charter organizations;
  • Fifty-Eight visits by oil and gas industry representatives to the appointees at the Interior Department between February and May; and
  • The EPA rejected FOIA requests to release the appointment calendar of its top deregulation official, while the Defense Department and Homeland Security released many of the titles of appointees, but not names.

In news that will not surprise seasoned FOIA requesters, the investigative efforts have found the process of obtaining information on the teams to be “scattershot. Some agencies have been soliciting public feedback, while others refuse even to disclose who is in charge of the review. In many cases, responses to public records requests have been denied, delayed or severely redacted.”

FBI Special Counsel Budget Will be Secret

The Justice Department will not be releasing the proposed budget submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Washington Post reports that “the regulation under which Mueller was appointed does not specifically detail how the special counsel must disclose expenses to the public. It requires only that Mueller ‘be provided all appropriate resources by the Department of Justice.’” DOJ officials say that they would release expenditure reports every six months. The first report is due to be published “sometime after Sept. 30.” President Trump has previously complained on Twitter that the “total hoax” Trump-Russia collusion investigation is a “taxpayer funded charade.”

Expired Body Armor

Documents obtained by the Senate Judiciary Committee show that “more than 1,400 law enforcement officers with the U.S. Marshals Service are wearing expired body armor, despite months of internal warnings.” The documents detail that over a third of operational employees at the agency have body armor that expires in 2016 and 2017. A spokeswoman said the agency has plans to replace all expired vests in the next three months.

The first agency employee that provided documentation to the Judiciary Committee was taken off his active duties and “given different responsibilities, prompting Grassley to complain to the agency that ‘this type of behavior is Retaliation 101, and it interferes with congressional oversight activities.’”

The Marshals’ incident recalls a 2005 story reporting, thanks to FOIA, that “the Marine Corps issued nearly 10,000 troops in Iraq body armor that ballistics experts rejected because tests revealed life-threatening flaws in the vests. The Corps recalled 5,277 vests made by Point Blank Body Armor when faced with the imminent publication of an eight-month probe into the purchase and distribution of the vests.”

Two U.S. Attorneys Release Resignation Letters

Two former U.S. Attorneys – Tom Delahanty of Maine and Mike Cotter of Montana – shared their resignation letters with the Burlington Free Press, saying there was nothing in the letters that should prevent their public release. Cotter’s March 10, 2017, letter stated: “Today at 12:45 p.m. MST I was informed that you Mr. President, ordered that I resign my position as United States Attorney for the District of Montana effective 5 p.m. MST today. Accordingly, I hereby submit my resignation.”

The Burlington Free Press reported in April that the Justice Department refused to release the resignation letters of the U.S. attorneys who “left their posts at the request of the Trump administration” in March. The Justice Department argued that the letters must be withheld because they were “inherently personal” and were not appropriate for discretionary release. Former Justice Department lawyer Allan Blutstein said the DOJ denial letter and the speed with which it was sent, “less than 10 days after receiving the request — suggest department staff conducted no search for responsive records and relied instead on the belief that all the resignation letters are exempt from disclosure.”

Blocked Twitter Users Sue Trump

Twitter uses that have been blocked by President Trump are suing Trump, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino, for violating their First Amendment rights. The suit, filed in the Federal District for the Southern District of New York, argues that Trump’s Twitter use amounts to a public forum, and a government official cannot block them from such. The suit is being brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute and raises “cutting-edge issues about how the Constitution applies to the social media era. They say Mr. Trump cannot bar people from engaging with his account because they expressed opinions he did not like, such as mocking or criticizing him.”

FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting July 20

The next Federal FOIA Advisory Committee meeting is July 20 at 10 AM in the McGowan Theater at NARA (register here). Topics expected to be discussed include 508 compliance and improving FOIA searches.

508 compliance refers to a section of the Rehabilitation Act that has required agencies to ensure that persons with disabilities have comparable access to government information as persons without disabilities and that federal employees with disabilities can access records with the same ease as their counterparts since 1998, and the Committee has been struggling with the topic since its inception. In theory, all documents created electronically by the US government since 1998 should already be compliant, but many agencies continue to argue that making documents 508 compliant for posting on agency FOIA reading rooms to be too burdensome, or agencies fear being sued for posting “non-compliant” documents.

An important development took place during the October 2016 FACA meeting that should be kept in mind going into this one: an expert panel comprised of representatives from the Access Board and the General Services Administration addressed the Committee and noted that if making documents 508 compliant constitutes an “undue burden,” agencies can still post documents that are not 508 compliant to their websites. The panel also noted that some agencies do post non-508 compliant documents but provide a disclaimer and further instructions for individuals with accessibility issues on how to access the documents – a practice that the panel indicated is acceptable and is something the Department of Homeland Security, among others, currently does. The Access Board Standards and Guidelines has relevant citations on when documents need not be made 508 compliant and when an agency may use alternative means to meet 508 requirements for individuals with disabilities on pages 5803 and 5843 respectively.

I will be live-tweeting as much as my reception in McGowan allows – follow at @laurenleharper.

Government Information Watch

A new resource is available for tracking openness and accountability in the federal government. Government Information Watch, directed by former director Patrice McDermott, is committed to monitoring “access to information about government policy, process, and practice and to ensure and preserve open, accountable government through advocacy.” Recent posts discuss the nomination of Neomi Rao for Administrator of Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and Prosecution under the Espionage Ace and “National Defense” Information.

Sharing Intelligence with non-IC Agencies

New policy guidance from the Director of National Intelligence and highlighted by Steve Aftergood at Secrecy News lays out the procedures for non-intelligence community agencies accessing classified intelligence or IC IT systems. Aftergood says, “In a nutshell, the non-IC agency must have an identifiable need for access to intelligence information and must be able to meet required physical security standards for safeguarding the information.” The guidance, “Federal Partner Access to Intelligence Community Information Technology Systems,” can be found here.

No Redacted Report on Russian Election Interference Possible

It is not possible for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a redacted version of a classified report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to a declaration filed by the ODNI’s Edward Gistaro in response to an Electronic Privacy Information Center FOIA lawsuit. Doing so would provide valuable information to foreign intelligence services and could “reasonably cause serious harm” to U.S. intelligence efforts and national security.

The document is one of 11 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, July 12.

“Kryptos” (1990), by James Sanborn, a sculpture containing a message encoded with frequency tables, located at the CIA’s New Headquarters Building. (Photo credit: CIA)

TBT Pick – CIA Reactions to JFK Assassination Included Fear of Possible Soviet Strike against U.S.; Desire to “Bond” with LBJ

This week’s #TBT pick features declassified articles from Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s in-house journal, that were released via FOIA requests and litigation. Topics highlighted in the articles include:

  • The Presidential ban against CIA assassinations of foreign leaders, first enacted in 1976, which reflected both moral and practical reasons but never spelled out the exact scope of the prohibition;
  • A proposal for a far more draconian version of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act – including secret courts for intelligence officers accused of violating that law and criminalizing any revelation or purported evelation of a covert intelligence officer’s identity;
  • An account of how CIA and Army intelligence analyses in the late 1970s indicated that the U.S. had significantly underestimated North Korean military strength — and derailed President Carter’s plan to withdraw U.S. ground forces from South Korea.

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Happy FOIA-ing!

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