FOIAing the Trump Administration: After a year, aspects of Trump appointees’ ethics agreements begin to expire

FOIAing the Trump Administration: After a year, aspects of Trump appointees’ ethics agreements begin to expire

Plus, a troubling use of deliberative process privilege at DHS

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

Trump has been in office for one year, which means some of his earliest appointees will soon be free of certain promises in their ethics agreements. This week, we take a look at how you can investigate Trump appointees’ ethical obligations using public records.

You can help hold the Trump administration accountable by filing a records request of your own, following MuckRock’s “FOIA the Trump Administration” project, and joining our Slack channel to share ideas and get help with your requests. If you have a Trump administration related FOIA you would like us to highlight, share it over email, Twitter, or Facebook and we may include them in the next roundup.

The shelf life of Trump appointees’ ethics agreements

Many appointees in the Trump administration - including a number of lobbyists - signed ethics agreements containing a variety of promises, such as pledging to divest assets and resign from positions that pose conflicts of interest. Appointees commonly pledge to recuse themselves from matters before their agency involving their old employers and clients - but these promises have a shelf live.

For many top Trump employees, they only had to refrain from participating in matters involving their old employers and interests for one year.

Excerpt from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s ethics agreement.

One year after his confirmation, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is no longer barred from working with the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a conservative group he chaired that financed and organized legal challenges to environmental regulations.

Excerpt from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ethics agreement.

Even while they are in place, ethics agreements don’t guarantee a perfect firewall between appointees and their private interests or the industries they represented as lobbyists. Officials can request individual waivers from designated ethics officers at their agencies. Sometimes, appointees find ways to work around or ignore their ethics agreements. Documents obtained through FOIA by ProPublica showed how a former pesticide lobbyist appointed to lead the deregulatory team at the Department of Agriculture participated in matters related to her old employer despite the pledge on her ethics agreement to refrain from doing so. The report generated outrage and an investigation on Capitol Hill, but all similar conduct will be permissible in April, when it will have been a year since she resigned from her position at CropLife America.

Excerpt from U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulatory team lead Rebecka Adcock’s ethics agreement.

Luckily, public records provide a means to keep track of active and expired ethical commitments made by Trump’s appointees - and FOIA requests provide a means to check how, if at all, appointees are interacting with their prior interests in their official capacity.

Here are some resources on ethics agreements that you can mine for FOIA request ideas:

  • Public financial disclosure form and ethics agreements are searchable here.
  • Certificates of divestiture issued by the Office of Government ethics are searchable here.
  • A list of Designated Agency Ethics Officers is available here. These officials receive and grant requests for individual ethics waivers for employees at their designated agencies.

Homeland Security uses deliberative process privilege to muzzle its Inspector General

The Project on Government Oversight and Open the Government filed a FOIA request for a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report on the agency’s rollout of Trump’s travel ban. It was first denied, then released after an appeal with significant redactions.

Agencies are entitled to withhold details about their deliberative process from FOIA requesters, but asserting this privilege as a means to prevent the release of or heavily redact an inspector general report is novel and troubling. In a helpful thread, POGO lays out why this cuts to the core of what inspectors general do and why it sets a bad precedent for the independence of agency watchdogs.

MuckRock Requests to follow and explore:

  • Completed request for communications between the Trump Transition Team and the Office of Government Ethics regarding a variety of conflict of interest filings.
  • Completed request from Housing Urban Development which confirms the existence of several fair housing complaint cases against properties owned by Jared Kushner’s companies. Requests to local HUD partners for the case files are pending.

Join our Slack channel to share ideas for FOIAing the Trump administration or to get help with your own requests.

Image by Joyce N. Boghosian via White House Flickr