Cause of Action Institute Investigates Possible DOJ Involvement with Congressional Frustration of the FOIA

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request with the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) today in response to recent reports that Representative Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, directed the Department of the Treasury and at least eleven other agencies to treat all records exchanged with the Committee as “congressional records” not subject to the FOIA.

CoA Institute’s request is narrowly tailored to uncover records that could reveal whether the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy—which oversees government-wide compliance with and policy concerning the FOIA—and Office of Legislative Affairs were consulted by Chairman Hensarling, or others, prior to the release of the controversial FOIA directive. The request also seeks records concerning possible White House involvement and whether agencies sought the DOJ’s advice before responding to Chairman Hensarling.

Federal law requires that Congress manifest clear intent to maintain control over specific records to keep them out of reach of the FOIA. Chairman Hensarling’s directive is ineffective, in that regard.  As I have argued elsewhere, the mere fact that an agency possesses a record that relates to Congress, was created by Congress, or was transmitted to Congress, does not, by itself, render it a “congressional record.” And, as set forth in a coalition letter joined by CoA Institute, ignoring this well-established standard would “improperly restrict the ability of the public to use FOIA” and impede transparency and good government.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

It’s Time to End the Federal Government’s Cash-for-Visas Program

The Washington Post rightly called on the Trump Administration yesterday to end the government’s controversial EB-5 visa regime and, in particular, its Regional Center Program, which was recently extended until the end of September 2017. In most cases, the “Immigrant Investor Program,” or Employment-Based Preference Five (“EB-5”) cash-for-visa program, permits foreign nationals to apply for a conditional visa by investing $500,000 in an area of “high unemployment.”  Once certain job creation requirements are satisfied, the visa holder can apply for a green card (i.e., for permanent residence).  Although advocates contend that EB-5 is good for the economy, the program has been beset with controversy.  Most recently, President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, came under scrutiny for his family’s efforts to “push” EB-5 visas to wealthy Chinese investors.

Cause of Action Institute’s (“CoA Institute”) investigation into various aspects of the EB-5 cash-for-visa program and the Regional Center Program have shown that these initiatives are continually abused for political or fraudulent purposes—a fact now acknowledged by the Government Accountability Office.

  • CoA Institute published a comprehensive report detailing how Virginia Governor Terry McAullife’s former company, GreenTech Automotive, used his political connections to garner millions of taxpayer dollars in loans and tax incentives. GreenTech remains embroiled in an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its involvement with EB-5. The Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security reported that McAuliffe and friends—including Anthony Rodham, brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—benefited from political favoritism in the administration of the visa program.
  • CoA Institute’s report on Forest City Enterprises explained how corporate interests and state and local government worked together to take advantage of weak and ambiguous regulations governing EB-5—manipulating census data to create “targeted employment areas” and relying on questionable job prediction models to meet green card conditions. CoA Institute also discovered that Forest City contracted the same immigration lawyer and economist as GreenTech.
  • CoA Institute filed an ethics complaint against former Senator Harry Reid, who contacted officials at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in an attempt to influence the approval of EB-5 visa applications for a casino development project owned by Reid’s donors and represented by his son. The Senate Ethics Committee ignored the request, claiming that it never received a copy despite evidence to the contrary.
  • In the wake of the DHS Inspector General’s report, CoA Institute called on the Department of Justice to investigate a number of government officials for violation of federal laws.

Simply stated, the EB-5 Program operates as a cash-for-visa scheme. Whatever economic advantage it might offer is outweighed by the corruption it engenders and negative influence it has on national security and good government.  Congress should end the program or work to reform its governing rules to prevent continued abuse by the political class.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Fighting Confusion and Complacency to Keep the IRS Accountable

It seems like a simple idea – the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any interested citizen to request documents from the people and agencies who exercise power over them. Elected officials have called it “our nation’s premiere transparency law” and one which serves a “crucial need … for open access to government information.”  Unfortunately, as one recent case shows, the process rarely works this way, leading to frustrating and sometimes bizarre results.

In 2014, Cause of Action Institute became concerned that lawyers employed by the Tax Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) were being detailed to work at the White House. At least two of these attorneys had access to the confidential taxpayer information of administration opponents because of their prior work on lawsuits connected to the IRS “targeting” scandal, and giving them this kind of assignment was unprecedented.  Taxpayer information would normally be kept private from White House officials, including the president, but now a pipeline had been opened where such information could reach political appointees. [See our investigative report discussing this issue in greater detail]

IRS quotes[Excerpts from IRS letters complaining about having to search its own records. CoAI would later discover a search had already taken place]

The IRS has a long history of misusing tax information, one that reaches as far back as FDR. Without proper procedures or training, the same kind of misconduct will inevitably happen again no matter which political party is in charge.  To find out more about the attorney transfers and whether any steps had been taken to safeguard taxpayer privacy, we submitted a FOIA request to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for e-mails between three attorneys assigned to the White House and the IRS division at the heart of the targeting scandal.

The request was sent in January 2014. The first reply arrived a month later, but it was merely notification that the agency would be “unable to send the information” within the 20 business days required by FOIA.  A second delay letter arrived in May, followed by a third delay in August and yet another delay in December.

Finally, in April of the following year – a full 282 business days after the 20 business-day deadline – we received a response. But it was not the e-mails we requested; it was a notice that our request was now too broad and would be closed because searching the e-mails of three people was “an unreasonable burden upon the IRS.”  Even if this were true, which seemed very unlikely, the agency had violated its own rules by dragging out the process and then failing to give us a chance to narrow the request before rejecting it.  We pointed out these problems in an appeal of the IRS decision, but the agency refused to acknowledge these problems and again rejected our request.

In an attempt to figure out how the process had gone so wrong, we submitted another FOIA request in May 2016 requesting the “processing notes” for the original request.  These notes document what happens to a request once it arrives at a government agency.  They are internally made, follow a particular format, and should be among the simplest of documents to locate and share.  Yet the first delay letter soon arrived, and another one three months later.  Not wanting to wait for a third delay notification, we filed a lawsuit against the agency to get a full explanation of what happened.

Such lawsuits are often required to get a meaningful response from the government, and ours finally forced the IRS to release the processing notes for our original request. So what was the explanation for the agency refusing to conduct a simple search – and taking over a year to say so?

Apparently, there wasn’t one. The IRS tax law specialist processing the request had marked in her records all the way back in December 2014 that a search had been done and “produced no documents.”  This happened four months before the IRS called our request “an unreasonable burden,” seven months before the agency claimed it was “unable to initiate a search” at all, and a full two years before we filed suit just to discover the IRS could have saved everyone time and money simply by reporting its original findings.

Why would government officials compare our request to “an all-encompassing fishing expedition” if they already knew there weren’t any fish to catch? The answer, if there is one, remains to be seen.  The original FOIA request is the subject of a separate and ongoing lawsuit, but the IRS has not yet produced any responsive documents.  If no improper communication took place between the lawyers transferred to the White House and their former IRS colleagues, then that is good news.  If no ethics training was given to those lawyers, then that good news is merely a coincidence.  Whatever the truth turns out to be, it is a worrying sign that a simple request can result in years of delays, constant obstruction, contradictory answers, and no solid explanation for any of these.

John McGlothlin is counsel at Cause of Action Institute

DOJ IG Agrees to Review Conflict of Interest in FBI Hillary Clinton Investigation

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any investigation into President Donald Trump’s election campaign.  That was the right decision to make.  The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) must remain clear of all appearances of impropriety.  All DOJ investigations should be, and be seen to be, fair and impartial.

Unfortunately, in the waning days of the Obama Administration, certain Justice officials refused to recuse themselves when facing circumstances similar to Mr. Sessions.  On October 25, 2016, we wrote to the DOJ Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) requesting an investigation into the failure of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to recuse himself from investigations of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, even though Mr. McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, received over $675,000 in money and in-kind contributions from Governor McAuliffe’s political action committee and the Democratic Party of Virginia.  Equally noteworthy, Governor McAuliffe met with Dr. McCabe to urge her to run for office as a Democrat on March 7, 2015, just five days after The New York Times broke the story on former Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email system.

Just this week, on February 23, the DOJ OIG wrote back, informing us that it has opened an investigation into Mr. McCabe’s failure to recuse himself.  This letter came on the heels of a public notice in late January announcing a broader investigation in response to inquiries from Congress and other outside groups.  We are pleased to hear that the DOJ OIG took our allegations seriously and look forward to the result of the investigation.



CoA Institute Probes Gov. McAuliffe Campaign Contributions to Wife of FBI Official During Clinton Email Investigation

Washington D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) today sent a request for investigation to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG), as well as a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI, seeking an investigation of and records relating to substantial political donations to the state senate campaign of Dr. Jill McCabe, the wife of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The campaign contributions came from the political action committee of one of Hillary Clinton’s top supporters, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

CoA Institute Vice President John J. Vecchione: “Governor McAuliffe directed significant campaign contributions to an FBI official’s wife during active FBI investigations into both Governor McAuliffe and former Secretary of State Clinton.  Just a few months after those contributions were made, the FBI official apparently played a role in the decision not to recommend prosecution of Secretary Clinton, and he may be in a similar influential position with respect to the ongoing McAuliffe investigation. Regardless of whether any illegal or unethical conduct occurred, the campaign contributions at the very least raise serious questions about conflicts of interest and the propriety of Deputy Director McCabe’s involvement in and influence on those investigations.”

As recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, Governor McAuliffe’s political action committee and the Virginia Democratic Party donated more than $675,000 in money and in-kind contributions to the state senate campaign of Dr. Jill McCabe, a figure that represents “more than a third of all the campaign funds Dr. McCabe raised in the effort.”  Governor McAuliffe also met with Dr. McCabe to urge her to run for office as a Democrat on March 7, 2015, just five days after The New York Times broke the story on former Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email system.

The investigation into former Secretary Clinton’s private email system began in July 2015.  At that time, Deputy Director McCabe ran the FBI’s Washington, D.C. field office, which provided personnel and resources to the Clinton email investigation.   Deputy Director McCabe assumed his current position in February 2016 and became part of the executive leadership team that oversaw the Clinton email investigation.

CoA Institute today requested an immediate investigation from the DOJ IG into the influence that these campaign contributions may have had on Deputy Director McCabe’s oversight of the Secretary Clinton email investigation and on the ongoing investigation of Governor McAuliffe. In its FOIA request to the FBI, CoA Institute seeks all communications surrounding Deputy Director McCabe’s role in the Clinton and McAuliffe investigations, as well the role Governor McAuliffe’s campaign contributions to Deputy Director McCabe’s wife may have played in those investigations.

The request for investigation to the DOJ IG is available HERE
The FOIA to FBI is available HERE

Report Reveals How White House Evaded Checks, Likely Accessed Confidential Taxpayer Information

Washington, D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) today released a comprehensive investigative report, Presidential Access to Taxpayer Information. The report covers in detail recent IRS misuse and unauthorized release of confidential taxpayer information and the possible role of a detailee program in the Office of the White House Counsel that may have provided access to the protected information.

The report states:

Following the misuse and unauthorized release of confidential taxpayer information during President Obama’s first term, including the largest breach of taxpayer confidentiality laws by the federal government in United States history, Cause of Action Institute investigated the legal and institutional checks designed to protect against such improper disclosure and the means by which the Obama administration may have evaded those checks.

That investigation revealed that President Obama has circumvented the congressionally created and authorized procedures for accessing confidential taxpayer information—procedures that were designed to be exclusive—by relying on individual consent forms that were never intended for use by the president. The practice has allowed the president to avoid the reporting requirements and limitations placed on presidential access to taxpayer information by the Tax Reform Act of 1976. In particular, the use of individual consents enables the administration to skirt statutory recordkeeping and reporting requirements to Congress, the limitations on the kind of information available for disclosure, and the extent to which such information can be shared within government agencies and offices.

The report reveals that throughout the Obama administration the Office of the White House Counsel employed at least one attorney detailed from the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division.  At least two of those attorney-detailees had intimate knowledge of confidential taxpayer information gained while serving as counsel to the IRS in litigation with nonprofit groups opposed to President Obama’s policies. This information is otherwise restricted from disclosure to the President and other White House officials.

The report shows that neither the DOJ Tax Division nor the Office of the White House Counsel has implemented context-specific training, guidelines, or ethical screens to prevent the inadvertent or deliberate disclosure of confidential taxpayer information by attorney-detailees.

Inherent conflicts of interest in the detailing program make it imperative that Tax Division attorneys who work on detail to the Office of the White House Counsel, especially those who have served as counsel to the IRS in matters involving the political opponents of the president, receive enhanced training and supervision to ensure the safeguarding of confidential taxpayer information. There does not appear to be any such program, specialized training, or targeted guidelines in place.

The report makes several recommendations, including that Congress should amend the Internal Revenue Code to ensure that the exclusive mechanisms created by the Tax Reform Act of 1976 for presidential access to confidential taxpayer information are enforced.

The full report and executive summary can be found here.


Growing Concern over Controversial Mortgage Settlements

Congress to Consider a Bill to Halt Government Slush Funds


On July 13, 2016, Cause of Action (CoA) Institute filed a complaint in the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia against the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The lawsuit seeks records that HUD has failed to produce in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding HUD’s role in the federal government multi-million dollar settlements with three banks over their allegedly faulty mortgage practices.  As CoA Institute continues to investigate and litigate, others are paying attention to these troubling settlements as well.

Last week, prominent Washington Post columnist George Will penned a column calling out the government for using the bank settlements as a slush fund.  Will notes that the government:

allows banks to meet some of their settlement obligations by directing “donations” to various nongovernmental advocacy organizations that serve Democratic constituencies and objectives — organizations that were neither parties to the case nor victims of the banks’ behaviors. These donations are from money owed to the government, money that otherwise would go to the Treasury, money the disposition of which is properly Congress’s responsibility.

And in the Wall Street Journal, Andy Koenig, senior policy adviser at Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, similarly focuses on one of the key facets of these settlements: financial incentives for the banks to fund third party groups:

Most of the deals give double credit or more against the settlement amount for every dollar in “donations.” Bank of America’s donation list—the only bank to disclose exactly where it sends its money—shows how this benefits liberal groups. The bank has so far given at least $1.15 million to the National Urban League, which counts as if it were $2.6 million against the bank’s settlement. Similarly, $1.5 million to La Raza takes $3.5 million off the total amount of “consumer relief” owed by the bank. There are scores of other examples.

To address the growing chorus of concerns over these controversial settlements, the House of Representatives today will consider the “Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act of 2016,” a bill introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)  to prevent any such future settlements. In other words, the bill would prohibit the government from creating a slush fund to direct settlement payments to favored (or any other) outside recipients.  The U.S. House of Representatives has scheduled a vote on this bill for September 7, 2016.

**UPDATE** The House passed the “Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act of 2016” on September 7 by a vote of 241-174.