Like many things in today’s politics, mail-in voting has become a political flashpoint as the November election looms larger. It doesn’t matter that voter fraud is just as rare through the mail, or that, as the election looks to take place during a probable resurgence of the coronavirus, a new poll found that most Americans support voting by mail. President Donald Trump and his allied lawmakers are not eager to make it easier for Americans to send in their ballots by post.
“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” Trump tweeted in early April. The week before, he had admitted that by making it easier to vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Officials in multiple states, including Texas and Wisconsin, seem to be going along with that by either actively opposing widespread absentee voting or by failing to prepare for it altogether. “Not without some irony,” wrote the Daily Beast, “Republican lawmakers voted by mail on Thursday to roll back a plan that expanded the access to mail-in ballots in Louisiana.” Other states, like Ohio, have faced logistical difficulties.
The consequences of forcing people to vote in person during a pandemic are obvious, but officials with partisan goals remain undeterred. American Oversight is continuing its investigation into how the coronavirus has disrupted democratic institutions across the country — from changes in how legislatures conduct business to election postponements (or failures to postpone) — and into how partisan interests may seek to take advantage of those disruptions. We filed open records requests with several states to shed light on what steps or considerations governments are taking related to voting by mail, asking for communications from secretaries of state in Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, Georgia and Florida. We also asked for any instructions regarding Georgia’s signature-matching verification process.
Of course, our investigation of the government’s response to the coronavirus isn’t just about voting rights. We’re also looking into the Trump administration’s mismanagement, what sort of influence has been wielded by industry and special interests, and how the coronavirus is impacting the most vulnerable. Read more:
New Documents: Mayor Asked Georgia to Keep Her City’s Beaches Closed — State Said No: On Wednesday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on records obtained by American Oversight that show Mayor Shirley Sessions of Tybee Island, Ga., had asked Gov. Brian Kemp to reconsider his statewide mandate that effectively reopened Georgia’s beaches. “It will be a devastating blow to the safety of our residents and others to reopen the beach at this time,” Sessions wrote to Kemp in an email sent on April 3. You can find these communications here.
Calendars of Officials Involved in Rolling Back LGBT Health-Care Protections: This week, American Oversight published thousands of pages of calendars of officials at the Department of Health and Human Services — including those involved in the department’s expected revision of a rule implementing Section 1557, the nondiscrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. According to Politico, the administration began making its latest moves toward finalizing the rule last week.
What’s in the Documents: The records, which also reveal a number of meetings with anti-abortion rights and religious conservative groups, provide a glimpse into the “religious freedom” policy priorities of HHS officials, especially Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino, who has been instrumental in the Section 1557 regulation rollbacks. We also published calendars of Seema Verma, the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; a meeting agenda from a July 2019 White House “listening session” attended by Secretary Alex Azar and a who’s-who of conservative groups opposed to the Affordable Care Act; and calendars of officials in the HHS Administration for Children and Families.
Emergency Small Business Loans: The rescue lending program for small businesses launched this past month, the Paycheck Protection Program, has been sharply criticized for early confusion, system crashes, and, most recently, reports that large, troubled companies — including some that have been able to raise money through other means — and companies with ties to the Trump administration have been receiving millions while small businesses are shut out. We filed a number of FOIA requests with the Small Business Administration for communications and guidance related to the program, whether the Trump Organization or Kushner Companies are eligible for loans, and for communications regarding Trump-linked companies.
FEMA’s Supply Chain Task Force: The task force, led by Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, has taken a central role in coordinating government efforts to obtain and distribute desperately needed supplies and emergency aid. We filed FOIA requests for Polowczyk’s calendars and communications, including his emails with specific White House officials.
HHS ‘Protect Now’: According to FedScoop, HHS has created a data-pulling system, compiling information from multiple federal agencies, states, health-care facilities, and other entities. We filed a request with HHS for all reports derived from the Protect Now platform and provided to Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the Coronavirus Task Force. We’re also asking federal agencies for any information-sharing authorizations provided to data officers.
Feds Seizing PPE: As states contend with the dire shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), some badly needed shipments have reportedly been seized by the federal government. We’re asking federal agencies for records related to these reported seizures.
Dr. Richard Bright’s Reassignment: Last week, respected career official Dr. Rick Bright was abruptly dismissed from his role as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, reportedly for pressing for vigorous testing of hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug frequently touted by the president despite lack of evidence of its effectiveness in treatment for Covid-19. We filed requests for records that could shed light on Bright’s reassignment and the administration’s rigor in assessing potential treatments.
Florida’s Unemployment System: As record numbers of Americans file for unemployment, Florida’s beleaguered unemployment system has buckled under the influx of claims. We filed records requests for information about more than $100 million in contracts the state has signed for help handling the increase in applications.
Prison Outbreaks: This week, we expanded our investigation into how prisons and detention centers are handling the pandemic, filing requests in Louisiana for coronavirus-related communications with facilities and private prison companies, as well as assessments or number of tests administered. And with the number of confirmed cases having recently surged in New Orleans’ jail, we also filed a request for communications from the Sheriff’s Office.
Food Assistance: The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the food security of millions of Americans, including children who rely on school lunch programs. Before backing off under heavy criticism, the Trump administration had even planned to fight a temporary court injunction on a work requirement rule that had originally been set to go into effect April 1, a requirement that could potentially jeopardize food assistance for 700,000 people. We’re asking the Department of Agriculture for related analyses, as well as for any related communications, including with the White House.
Coronavirus Testing in New Jersey Detention Facilities: Detention facilities in Essex County, N.J., were among the first to test Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees for the coronavirus. Last week, state officials said that ICE has “prohibited” them from reporting any information about detainee coronavirus test results to the public. We filed an open public records request with Essex County for communications and directives from ICE about the issue.
Law Enforcement Use of Facial Recognition Software: The facial recognition software company Clearview AI has recently grown in popularity among law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and ICE. Clearview’s software allows users to compare pictures of faces against a database of more than 3 billion photographs scraped from sites such as Facebook and YouTube, raising questions about the personal privacy risks. Agencies have been using the software without much public scrutiny, and Clearview has reportedly “shrouded itself in secrecy.” We filed records requests with multiple federal agencies as well as the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department for communications regarding Clearview AI.
Tommy Fisher Border Wall Contract in Arizona: In April, the construction company Fisher Sand & Gravel, already the subject of a Pentagon inspector general audit over a contract they were awarded in December, received a contract to build 800 feet of barriers along a wildlife refuge in Yuma, Ariz. Company president Tommy Fisher is not only an outspoken supporter of Trump, but a GOP donor and frequent guest on Fox News. As part of our ongoing investigation into the Trump administration’s push for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, we filed public records requests with Yuma County and multiple Arizona state agencies to learn more.
ODNI Departures and Dismissals: In February, several senior officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), including then-Acting Director Joseph Maguire, announced that they would be stepping down from their leadership roles at the agency. Reporting at the time indicated that Trump removed Maguire after learning that the intelligence community had briefed Congress on Russian interference on his behalf in the 2020 election. Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany, subsequently replaced Maguire as acting director despite Grenell’s minimal intelligence experience. We filed FOIA requests with ODNI for email communications regarding dismissals as well as records related to the resignations of specific ODNI officials.
Private Email Lists for a Conservative Supreme Court: Following Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, reports surfaced that a group of conservative activists and Kavanaugh associates had been monitoring the Supreme Court nomination process through private email lists, including one called Bravoure. We’re asking the Texas Office of the Attorney General for email communications referencing Bravoure.
Sudden Halt of Sanctions Against Russian Oligarch: In 2018, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his associated companies were sanctioned for their involvement with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Although the Treasury eventually lifted sanctions against some of the targeted companies, the agency was also reportedly planning to deliver new sanctions against Deripaska at the end of 2019, but unexpectedly backed off. We’re asking for communications and interagency meeting records regarding the sanctions as well as the evidence used to justify halting the planned sanctions.
Continuing Our Investigation of Trump’s Post-Impeachment Purges: We’ve been following instances of political retaliation in the Trump administration and, more recently, investigating Trump’s post-impeachment purges of high-ranking officials. Reports suggest that the White House has escalated its efforts to dismiss government officials determined to be “disloyal” to Trump, an effort coordinated by John McEntee, director of the Presidential Personnel Office. We filed a FOIA request to the Treasury Department for senior officials’ communications with McEntee.