by USA Today’s Donovan Slack
March 13, 2017
Concerned by the shortage of government experience and early missteps by Trump administration officials —including President Trump — a group of lawyers is launching a watchdog organization that will seek to track the administration’s ethics and expose potential conflicts, fraud or other wrongdoing.
The organization, “American Oversight,” which says it is nonpartisan despite some of its founders having deep ties to Democrats, will focus on prying loose documents through public records requests and lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act. Regardless of what they uncover, such efforts could haunt the administration much the way similar actions by conservative group Judicial Watch produced emails from the State Department that dogged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“We were very troubled to see in the wake of the election all the red flags going up about how this executive branch was going to be run, and how Congress was reacting, which was essentially to put its head in the sand or only act when really forced to do so over egregious matters,” said, Austin Evers, a State Department lawyer under Obama and now executive director of American Oversight.
“So we’re going to be using the tools available to citizens to extract information about corruption, about how money’s being misspent, about how rules aren’t being followed and publicize it so at minimum, voters can hold their government accountable.”
There are numerous watchdog groups in Washington, but many are focused on Congress and the White House. American Oversight plans to target federal agencies, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education, both of which are led by secretaries without governing experience. HUD Secretary Ben Carson is a former neurosurgeon, while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was a philanthropist and school-choice advocate.
According to Evers and Melanie Sloan, a senior adviser to the group, they will delve well below the cabinet level down into the thousands of mid- and lower level appointees and employees. One of their most pressing concerns as they launch is the preservation of records.
Evers is sending letters Monday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the chief archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, David Ferriero, asking them to investigate recent reports that administration officials and career government employees are using encrypted apps and other methods to conduct official business that violate the Presidential Records and Federal Records acts.
“Instead of waiting months or years to remedy this problem, NARA should act today to ensure that problems are curtailed as soon as possible,” Evers wrote in a letter to Ferriero. “We call on you to investigate potential violations of law occurring across the executive branch, to ensure that all records reflecting official government business are properly preserved and to report your findings to Congress so that the public can have confidence that the administration is not shirking accountability by hiding its records.”
The organization timed its launch to kick off Sunshine Week, an annual national effort to highlight the importance of access to public information. The group has only a handful of lawyers on board at this point, but is still staffing up. It does have a web site set to go live Monday with a portal for people to report waste, fraud or corruption, americanoversight.org. The group is organized as a 501c3 nonprofit and doesn’t plan to disclose its funding sources.
“We don’t discuss our donors,” Sloan said.
She previously was founding executive director of the left-leaning watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, and Evers was a senior counsel at State during the height of the Clinton email scandal. But they insist American Oversight will not be partisan in its watchdog efforts.
“This is a down-the-middle, nonpartisan group,” Evers said. “We’re not looking to score points for anybody.”
Sloan noted that during her tenure at CREW, she was vocal in her criticism of Democrats as well as Republicans. CREW forwarded a tip to the FBI that helped lead to still-pending federal corruption charges against Sen. Bob Menendez, D- N.J., who has pleaded not guilty.
Sloan and Evers said they plan to post online records requests and any documents they receive, regardless of what they reveal.
“It will speak for itself,” Sloan said. “So on this question about whether somebody’s funding some part of it, people will be able to make their own determinations based on the material that’s there.” [READ MORE]