From the Desk of Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton:
Obama Snagged in Digital Television Controversy
More broken promises to report this week related to the Obama White House and the issue of transparency.
On August 6, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to obtain documents related to the government’s decision to delay the transition to digital television. The FCC refused to respond to Judicial Watch’s initial FOIA request until – get this – "we receive instructions from the White House."
Instructions from the White House on a routine FOIA request?
This response is not only highly unusual, but it is also extremely troubling given that our FOIA request actually involves alleged corruption inside the Obama White House!
Here’s the back-story.
On February 13, 2009, Judicial Watch filed a FOIA request with the FCC seeking access to the following records: "Any records concerning the decision to delay the transition to digital television until June 12, 2009…Any and all records of communication between the Federal Communications [Commission] and the White House concerning the delays in the transition to digital television."
At the time, press reports indicated that a donor and advisor to President Obama on digital television issues, Gerard Salemme, is an executive with Clearwire, a telecommunications company that stood to benefit from the delay. The digital transition delay allegedly allowed Clearwire (and its partner, Sprint) to maintain an edge over competitor Verizon. The delay in the digital transition also would have had the effect of delaying Verizon’s launch of a new broadband wireless network that would compete with a network currently operated by Clearwire/Sprint.
On May 8, 2009, the FCC reported to Judicial Watch that it had uncovered documents related to the first part of Judicial Watch’s request and that the FCC would soon release some documents while withholding others. With respect to the second part of Judicial Watch’s request, involving communications with the Obama administration, Joel Kaufman, Associate General Counsel for the FCC, indicated that the agency was required to "consult with the White House." The FCC "is unable to respond to this part of your FOIA request until we receive instructions from the White House," Kaufman wrote in his response letter.
On June 16, Judicial Watch received a number of documents related to the first part of its request. However, a large portion of these documents was heavily redacted without explanation. No documents have been received to date related to the FCC’s communications with the White House.
So here’s my question: Why is the Obama White House interfering in a routine FOIA request?
There is no provision of FOIA law that allows the White House to screen requests for potentially damaging information. The FCC, however, does have an obligation to abide by the law and either release the documents or provide a justification for withholding them. If the Obama White House cares a whit about transparency, as the president has claimed on numerous occasions, White House operatives will stop impeding the open records process.
Judicial Watch Investigation Exposes Wasteful U.S. Senate Requests for Military Travel
You may recall in March, Judicial Watch uncovered documents exposing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s multiple (and excessive) requests for military air travel. These documents included internal Department of Defense (DOD) email correspondence detailing attempts by DOD staff to accommodate Pelosi’s numerous requests for military escorts and military aircraft as well as the speaker’s last minute cancellations and changes.
As a result of our work, the media was sensitized to the issue of media travel and a firestorm erupted over the past week when it was reported by Roll Call that House appropriators sought to force the Pentagon to spend $500 million dollars on luxury jets (which are used, in part, for the congressional junkets that we highlighted with Nancy Pelosi.)
Our work exposing Air Pelosi was cited by the Wall Street Journal, Time and other publications. I even had a fun segment on the Fox Business Channel to discuss the controversy. (The Journal did excellent reporting on increasing use of military airplanes for Congressional junkets, including a trip during which a congressman went scuba-diving to investigate the alleged global-warming scare.)
Well, in the midst of all the controversy, Judicial Watch turned up the heat on its investigation of waste and abuse related to congressional military travel. This week we released a fresh batch of documents from the Department of Defense (DOD) and the United States Air Force (USAF) related to repeated requests for military aircraft made by members of the U.S. Senate.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
- A January 2, 2009 internal DOD email related to a military travel request from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Office. A DOD official responding to the request wrote: "…I was under the impression that they really only had small a/c [aircraft]. Regardless, with Sen Reid being the lead, they would definitely want a vip configured bird. Right now approval is only for one a/c. It’s amazing how fast these things grow."
- A March 12, 2009 internal DOD email related to a military travel request involving a seven-country tour from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The DOD official responding to the request wrote: "As I expected, the McConnell group wants their C-40 not a C-9…This is the only group that would not shift their dates to be in one half of the month and thus are taking up an asset that could have been used twice but now is being used once. That drove the aircraft decision…it was better to have a C-9 used once than a C-40 (greater range and passenger capability)…The group is also the only group with a large aircraft who only has four members (McConnell, Chambliss, Barasso, Risch + spouses) all others have 5, 6, 7, or 10 members…"
- A date-redacted internal DOD email related to the McConnell request. The DOD official responding to the request wrote: "Tell OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) that Sen. McConnell and Secretary Gates have already discussed this trip at some length. What I need to have ready for the McConnell office is ‘why’ the Republican leader of the Senate has been assigned this type of aircraft. They will view this type of aircraft assignment as not appropriate for such a high-level delegation. I understand the requirements for safe and efficient DOD provided transportation, but they will not. I at least want to be able to tell the McConnell office, ‘we asked.’"
- Request on behalf of at least one congressional spouse ("for protocol purposes"), including to war zones such as Afghanistan. The emails suggest that this issue raised security concerns.
- Military assets were used to transport dozens of Senators, their spouses, and others to the funerals of retired Senators Claiborne Pell and Jesse Helms.
The military has more important things to do than catering to the travel whims of Congress. These new documents show that Congressional military travel is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. When will Members of Congress stop treating the United States Air Force as their own personal airline?
The good news is that the controversial money for Congressional luxury travel is being pared back by the Senate. In this way, you see how your Judicial Watch’s investigations and lawsuits can lead to real change and reform in Washington. (And I’m sure Congress didn’t want any more grief on top of the spontaneous opposition it is receiving to health-care plans.)
But there is still work to be done.
For instance, John Fund has done important reporting on the size and scope of the congressional travel scandal, which is truly shocking. As he wrote in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal:
Frequent flying by Congress is a growth industry…House members last year spent some 3,000 days overseas on taxpayer-funded trips, up from about 550 in 1995. This month, 11 separate congressional delegations will visit Germany.
The total cost for congressional overseas travel is never made public because the price tag for State Department advance teams and military planes used by lawmakers are folded into much larger budgets. Members of Congress must only report the total per diem reimbursements they receive in cash for hotels, meals and local transport.
They don’t have to itemize expenses—a convenient arrangement since most costs are covered by the government or local hosts…Total per diem allowances (per person, including staff) can top $3,000 for a single trip. Unused funds are supposed to be given back to the government, but congressional records show that rarely happens.
So the scandal deepens. I will continue to keep you posted on the results of Judicial Watch’s continuing investigation into the matter as events warrant.
Treasury Documents Uncovered by Judicial Watch Reveal Details of AIG Bailout
This week we released documents from the Treasury Department related to the government’s bailout of insurance giant American International Group (AIG). Here’s the headline: The Treasury Department knew the taxpayer would never recover their "investment” in AIG and apparently attempted to conceal that fact from the American people.
Overall, the documents, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, include internal Treasury Department emails and a series of outlines, presentation slides and articles outlining the details of the government’s AIG bailout, which at the time totaled as much $152 billion.
Following are highlights from the documents:
- A series of presentation slides detailing the terms of the AIG bailout. Included among the items is a slide entitled "Investment Considerations." On the slide the words, "The prospects of recovery of capital and a return on the equity investment to the taxpayer are highly speculative" are crossed out by hand.
- An outline that describes the strict measures of control "imposed" on AIG as a condition of the cash infusion, including those related to private executive compensation and corporate expenses. One document notes with respect to corporate expenses: The government’s corporate expense policy "…shall remain in effect at least until such time as any of the shares of the Senior Preferred are owned by the UST (United States Treasury). Any material amendments to such policy shall require the prior written consent of the UST until such time as the UST no longer owns any shares of Senior Preferred."
- A December 15, 2008 Treasury Department internal email from Jonathan Fletcher, Chief Interim Risk Officer for TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), revealing the existence of an internal government program to track the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the AIG bailout. Fletcher writes: "As you know, we are obligated by EESA (Emergency Economic Stabilization Act) to determine the effectiveness of TARP investments…We would propose to follow up on the TARP investment by preparing a risk assessment note that spells out the objectives…and then create both a benchmark for AIG today and then establish metrics to track AIG’s progress (or lack thereof) in coming months." No documents related to this government tracking program have been released to the public.
Apparently although some government officials recognize their responsibility to measure the effectiveness of their TARP investments, at the same time, the American people are misinformed and remain in the dark about how their money is being spent. And it bears repeating that Treasury Department officials understood that the $152 billion "investment” in AIG would not be recovered by the taxpayers. Yet it appears someone at Treasury did not want the risky nature of the deal to be relayed to the American people.
That’s why we’re being so persistent in pressuring the government to release bailout documents. Obviously the only way government officials will ever tell the truth to the American people about the bailout is if Judicial Watch forces the issue. (Just like we did with the documents we uncovered regarding former Treasury Secretary Henry "Hank” Paulson’s meetings with the nation’s leading banks.) Stay tuned. Much more to come.
Until next week…
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