Weekly Update: Air Pelosi Exposed
Documents Detail Nancy Pelosi’s Love of Flying at Our Expense
Your Tax Dollars: FOIA Goes to the Supreme Court
Senate Ethics Committee Gives Senator Cory Booker a Pass
U.S. Grants Thousands of Spousal Visas for Underaged Children
Nancy Pelosi’s plan to fly into a war zone to thank the troops, which President Trump put on hold, was déjà vu all over again. We’ve been watching her taxpayer-supported travel for years. I discuss our prior work here in an op-ed for Fox News.
Just this week, we released documents we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Air Force that detail $134,587.81 plus $50,000 for an advance of funds for an “escort officer” for a total of $184.587.81 for then-House Minority Leader Pelosi’s Congressional delegation (CODEL) to Italy and Ukraine in 2015.
- All records regarding mission taskings of flights escorting members of Congress
- All records concerning transportation costs for transporting members of Congress
- All passenger manifests (DD-2131) for transporting members of Congress
- All weekly travel reports for members of Congress
The documents show that from July 30 to August 6, Pelosi took a trip to Milan, Rome and Naples, Italy, and Kiev, Ukraine, for herself, her husband, several members of congress and their spouses. The Italy trip included Milan, Rome and Naples with visits to the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Duomo and viewing Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”
The documents also show the Air Force’s negative response to a Pelosi staff request for a specific crew for Pelosi’s flight. An official notes that it: “would be a disastrous precedent to set even if it were possible.” The Air Force further points out: “Our ARC crews have plenty to balance already with military duties and their civilian employers.”
The documents also detail a CODEL trip for Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), who traveled commercial flights to Asia, including Tokyo and Okinawa, Japan; Seoul, Korea; plus Beijing and Hong Kong, China. This trip, with flights and per diems, cost at least $26,009.03.
We previously uncovered that Pelosi’s military travel cost the United States Air Force $2,100,744.59 over one two-year period — $101,429.14 of which was for in-flight expenses, including food and alcohol.
Our work exposing Pelosi’s travel abuses resulted in her successor John Boehner declining to use Air Force luxury jets to travel to his Ohio congressional district.
Our leaders live like kings and queens at our expense, and this might be a good time for those who pay for it to rise up and just say no.
Judicial Watch is the nation’s leading litigator of Freedom of Information Act actions. We know better than most that the rights guaranteed by this law must be constantly defended. Micah Morrison, our chief investigative reporter, details on one example in his latest Investigative Bulletin.
The Freedom of Information Act is headed to the Supreme Court. FOIA is a critical tool in the fight to make government more transparent and accountable. In 2017, the federal government fielded more than 800,000 FOIA requests. Many were shot down immediately as falling under one or more of the nine categories that Congress exempted from disclosure under FOIA, including broad swathes of information related to national security, law enforcement, personal privacy, privileged communications, and confidential commercial or financial information. A good overview of FOIA exemptions can be found here.
The new case on the Supreme Court docket, Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, is focused on FOIA’s Exemption 4, trade secrets and commercial information. The exemption protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and that is privileged or confidential.”
Want to know how a federal contractor is making use of your tax dollars? Interested in the activities of a federally regulated financial entity? You’re in Exemption 4 territory.
Our FOIA friends at MuckRock note that the upcoming case could “either cement the public’s right to know or severely restrict the ability to track the flow of tax dollars into private companies.”
The case began in 2011 when the Sioux Falls Argus Leader decided to take a look at where food stamp money is spent. The newspaper filed a FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, these days referred to as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Argus Leader asked the USDA for the name, address, store type and annual SNAP sales figures for every participating store from 2005 to 2010.
The public has “a right to know how much taxpayer money grocers, gas stations, big box retailers and others get by participating in the federal food stamp program,” the newspaper has written.
“SNAP is a humongous program,” the newspaper noted in a supporting document filed later in the case. It provides more than 40 million Americans with average monthly food assistance of about $125, a $70 billion annual total. SNAP recipients use an official SNAP debit card for purchases.
The taxpayer stake in SNAP is clear. “Under SNAP,” the Argus Leader noted, “the money flows from the taxpayer to the government to the eligible SNAP households to the SNAP retailers from whom the food is purchased. The crux of the government program is that the government–with taxpayer dollars–buys groceries for low-income families from stores that wish to do business under the program.”
Enter Exemption 4. Responding to the Argus Leader FOIA, the Agriculture Department released names, store type and addresses, but declined to produce the yearly sales figures. The department argued the sales figures were exempt from disclosure because they constituted confidential business information.
The newspaper appealed the decision, the USDA ignored the appeal–typical FOIA behavior from the feds, alas–and the Argus Leader sued.
You can read the sad timeline of the case here. After a district court judge sided with the newspaper’s argument that disclosure of the sales figures would not cause substantial competitive harm to retailers, the USDA threw in the towel, agreeing to disclose the numbers.
That’s when food industry lobbyists stepped in. The Food Marketing Institute filed an emergency motion with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene. An Eighth Circuit panel heard the case and it too ruled in favor of the newspaper.
The wheels of FOIA turn slow. Seven years had passed since the Argus Leader’s original FOIA request. You can see the game here: run out the clock, grind down the requester.
But the lawyers were not done. After failing to get the entire Eighth Circuit to take up the matter, FMI filed a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, asking it to review the case.
The High Court accepted the case. It’s on the docket for April.
Scotusblog notes that the Supremes are likely looking to “resolve at least five circuit [court] splits over Exemption 4’s “confidentiality” term and whether the “substantial-competitive-harm” claim test is satisfied.
MuckRock warns that if the lower-court decisions “are overturned, lack of access to this data will continue to hold back public spending accountability and nutrition research around the country–and provide corporations a powerful tool to keep public data proprietary in other cases.”
We will keep you informed on this important case.
Surprise, surprise. The U.S. Senate is protecting one of its most brazenly unethical members.
We announced this week that the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics has refused to take action against Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who admitted to willfully violating Senate rules by releasing confidential records regarding then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s time as a White House counsel. The documents were marked “Committee confidential,” meaning they were not for public distribution.
Our September 2018 complaint to the chairman and co-chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics called for an investigation after Sen. Booker admitted to violating Senate rules in releasing the confidential material. Ethics Committee Chief Counsel and Staff Director Deborah Sue Mayer responded last week:
The Select Committee on Ethics (the Committee) has reviewed the complaint you filed against Senator Cory A. Booker, dated September 12, 2018. The Committee carefully evaluated the allegations in the complaint and, based on all the information before it, determined that no further action is appropriate. Thank you for your correspondence with the Committee.
Sen. Booker admitted breaking Senate rules when he issued a tweet on Friday, September 7 saying:
Weds—I broke committee rules by reading from “Committee confidential” docs.
Also, Sen. Booker then posted the following entry on his Facebook account on Sunday, September 9:
And the classification of many documents as “Committee confidential” is a sham… I willfully violate these sham rules. I fully accept any consequences that might arise from my actions including expulsion.
We noted in our complaint that Sen. Booker also uploaded “Committee confidential” records to a publicly accessible Dropbox account with the heading “Booker Confidential – Kavanaugh Hearing Documents”.
By violating the rules in releasing Committee confidential records, Sen. Booker appeared to have violated provisions 5 and/or 6 of Rule 29 of the Standing Rules of the Senate (Rev. Jan. 24, 2013), which stipulate that he should be subject to expulsion from the Senate:
- Any Senator, officer or employee of the Senate who shall disclose the secret or confidential business or proceedings of the Senate, including the business and proceedings of the committees, subcommittees and offices of the Senate shall be liable, if a Senator, to suffer expulsion from the body; and if an officer or employee, to dismissal from the service of the Senate, and to punishment for contempt.
- Whenever, by the request of the Senate or any committee thereof, any documents or papers shall be communicated to the Senate by the President or the head of any department relating to any matter pending in the Senate, the proceedings in regard to which are secret or confidential under the rules, said documents and papers shall be considered as confidential, and shall not be disclosed without leave of the Senate.
(See pp. 48-49: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CDOC-113sdoc18/pdf/CDOC-113sdoc18.pdf )
The Senate Ethics Committee is evenly split, with three Republicans and three Democrats. The Committee members are Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Christopher A. Coons (D-DE), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Brian Schatz (D-HI), James Risch (R-ID), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
It is an absolute disgrace that the Senate Ethics Committee is giving Senator Booker a pass for willfully violating Senate rules by leaking confidential information to smear Justice Kavanaugh. The Senate continues the abuse of Kavanaugh and his family by refusing to act against a Senator who, pretending to be Spartacus, violated the rule of law and our Constitution in trying to destroy him.
We have an immigration system that is broken not because, as open borders advocate, we need to provide amnesty, but because the immigration system undermines our values and allows individuals to abuse the rule of law. Consider this tragic report in our Corruption Chronicles blog.
While the U.S. government advances policies to prevent child marriage in foreign countries it approves thousands of petitions filed by Americans seeking spouse or fiancé visas for children born abroad. In the last decade more than 8,500 petitions for spousal entry into the U.S. involved minors, according to government figures included in a Senate Homeland Security report (How the U.S. Immigration System Encourages Child Marriages) released this month. In an overwhelming number of the cases girls were the younger party and in some there were “significant age differences,” Senate investigators found. Two were only 13 years old, 38 were 14 years old, 269 were 15 years old, and 1,768 were 16. The remaining 6,609 were 17 years old, according to the records, which were obtained from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
In a disturbing example, the agency approved a 71-year-old American citizen’s visa request for a 17-year-old spouse from Guatemala. In another, the agency granted a 14-year-old U.S. citizen’s petition for a 48-year-old spouse from Jamaica. USCIS also rubber-stamped 149 applications involving a minor with an adult spouse or fiancé over the age of 40. Nearly 5,000 minors in the United States on spousal or fiancé visas received green cards to become lawful permanent residents, federal figures show. “U.S. law and U.S. Department of State policy aim to prevent and reduce the risks of child marriages occurring around the world, yet major loopholes in U.S. law have allowed thousands of minors to be subjected to child marriages,” the senate report states. “Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), a U.S. child may petition for a visa for a spouse or fiancé living in another country, and a U.S. adult may petition for a visa for a minor spouse or fiancé living abroad.”
Two government agencies—USCIS and the State Department—must approve spouse or fiancé visas. The request is initially made to USCIS, which does not require parental or judicial consent for minors. Once the agency approves the application, the State Department usually issues the visa. “The State Department returns or rejects few spousal or fiancé immigrant visa petitions after they are approved by USCIS,” the report states. Senate investigators spoke with a “child marriage victim” who was forced to marry her older cousin during a family vacation to Pakistan. USCIS approved her spousal immigration benefit when she was just 13 years old and throughout the forced marriage, she suffered physical and sexual abuse. “She is just one of the thousands of U.S. women and girls forced into a child marriage involving the U.S. immigration system,” the report says.
Ironically, the U.S. government launched an aggressive global campaign years ago to slash an epidemic of child marriages, rampant in third-world countries. India tops the list for child marriage (15.5 million), according to a global nonprofit committed to ending it and enabling girls to fulfill their potential. Two Latin American countries—Brazil (3 million) and Mexico (1.4 million)—also appear in the top ten. As part of the U.S. campaign to reduce child marriage abroad, Congress passed a measure in 2013 requiring the secretary of state to establish and implement a multiyear strategy to “prevent child marriages” and “to promote the empowerment of girls at risk of child marriage in developing countries.” A few years later the State Department launched a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls to, among other things, “reduce the risk of child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM).” In its lengthy strategy handbook, the agency revealed that there are nearly 700 million women alive today who were married as children and 15 million more are married each year. The State Department also writes that “forced marriage is a human rights abuse and, in the case of minors, a form of child abuse.” It also creates gender inequality, contributes to economic hardship and leads to “under-investment in girls’ educational and healthcare needs.” Why would the same agency approve thousands of visas for children—mostly girls—to enter forced marriages in the U.S.?
Until next week …