Judicial Watch & The Transparency Crisis

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton was up on Capitol Hill recently preaching the transparency gospel. A few days later, he delivered the same message to the White House and at a special Judicial Watch presentation with House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz. His urgent report: the nation is facing a transparency crisis.

“The United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,” Tom told the House Oversight Committee. “To be frank, the Obama administration was an enemy of transparency. President Obama promised the most transparent administration in history, but federal agencies turned into black holes in terms of disclosures.”

Judicial Watch is the national leader in filing and litigation of Freedom of Information Act requests. We filed close to 3,000 FOIA requests with the Obama administration. Our attorneys fought nearly 200 FOIA cases through the courts. Famously, Judicial Watch repeatedly scooped the media and government investigators by uncovering documents on Clinton finances, Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the Fast & Furious gun scandal, electoral abuses and illegal activities on the southern border. Our work drives the government and media agenda.

I’m often asked, What is the secret of Judicial Watch’s success? How does it get documents that the mightiest media newsrooms and powerful congressional players seem unable to obtain? I’d like to ascribe it to the brilliance of its chief investigative reporter, but I can’t. The secret sauce of Judicial Watch’s success comes from its dedicated donors, experienced leadership, and most importantly, a cadre of battle-tested litigators and investigators.

Experience counts. The Judicial Watch leadership team—President Tom Fitton, Director of Litigation Paul Orfanedes and Director of Research & Investigations Christopher Farrell—brings almost sixty years of combined FOIA experience to the table. Chris Farrell spearheads a team of accomplished investigators thoroughly versed in state and federal freedom of information statutes. Critically important to these endeavors, all of which come with strict filing requirements and multiple deadlines, is our FOIA program manager, Kate Bailey, who makes sure the FOIA trains run on time.

Paul Orfanedes commands the deepest bench of expert FOIA attorneys in the country. It’s an unfortunate fact of FOIA life that government agencies will often do everything they can to avoid complying with sunshine laws: delays, stonewalls, legal obfuscations and all sorts of chicanery are the name of the game when it comes to high-stakes FOIA actions. Paul and his team have seen every trick in the book. Often—all too often—after our investigators have exhausted every avenue of administrative appeal, it’s time to say “see you in court” and turn the case over to our legal team. In many instances, that’s when the really important documents start to emerge.

I have received countless notes from donors saying, in essence, “I don’t have much money, but I believe in your mission and here’s what I can afford to keep you going.” All my colleagues at Judicial Watch have received similar notes and we are proud of, and grateful for, each and every one. Because without our donors, there is no way our mission could continue. Special investigations and lawsuits are expensive.

At the Capitol Hill hearing, Tom made a revolutionary proposal—he suggested that “Congress should apply the freedom of information concept to itself and the courts, the two branches of the federal government exempt from transparency laws.” He also called attention to a transparency case Judicial Watch is pursuing in regard to hidden assets at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and open-records resistance at the Smithsonian Institution. You can read more about them here. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at other legislative proposals for fostering transparency. Meanwhile, let the sunshine in.

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Investigative Bulletin leaves for vacation at the end of the week and will return in mid-April.

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org

 

Road Map To The Russian Connection

The headlines out of Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russian connection confirmed what has been widely reported: the FBI is investigating Team Trump’s alleged involvement with Russian government entities during the 2016 election and Mr. Trump’s charge that Barack Obama wiretapped him during the campaign is baseless. Every high-profile congressional hearing is largely kabuki theater and this one was no different: the party out of power sees abuses everywhere and the party in power plays defense, but careful observers often can glean indications of what is happening behind the scenes. That’s the case with Monday’s session.

The money quote comes from FBI Director James Comey. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Mr. Comey said, is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

That’s a broad mandate. As I’ve noted before, the most consequential of the many probes launched into the Russian connection—Congress, law enforcement, the media—will come from the FBI. Mr. Comey is back in the hot seat. Congress has an important public-information role to play, including on the related issues of leaks and cyber-security, but the main game is the FBI.

On Monday, Mr. Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers repeatedly turned aside questions about the Trump campaign, but important clues about the direction of the investigation surfaced in the opening statement of Representative Adam Schiff, the minority leader on the committee. Mr. Schiff is a partisan Democrat, but he’s also a former federal prosecutor and a member of the Gang of Eight—the top congressional leaders who receive classified briefings from the intelligence community, including on the Russian connection. So Mr. Schiff knows more than he can say. On Monday, he pushed the envelope.

Mr. Schiff signaled that four individuals are at the center of the FBI counterintelligence probe: Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort. None of these names come as a surprise to anyone following the story. All have been named in press accounts.

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The Preet Heat

President Trump sent another shock wave through the legal system Friday with an abrupt Justice Department demand that all forty-six U.S. Attorneys held over from the Obama Administration hand in their resignations immediately. The U.S. Attorney from the storied Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, had good reason to think he might be exempt from this demand: in November, following a highly publicized meeting in Trump Tower, then-President-elect Trump asked Mr. Bharara to stay on.

What changed? Mr. Bharara simply may have been a victim of raw power politics—he is a former chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer and there is no love lost between the Senate minority leader and the president. But as I noted in November, the SDNY is no ordinary crime-fighting post. It’s been home to law-enforcement legends such as Henry Stimson, Thomas Dewey, Robert Morgenthau and Rudy Giuliani. It’s size, Manhattan location and jurisdiction over Wall Street make it an important player in the U.S. justice system, famously independent of Washington.

Mr. Bharara established himself as a respected non-partisan scourge of political corruption, sending to jail more than twenty-five corrupt New York political figures, including Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and the majority leader of the New York State Senate, Dean Skelos, a Republican. The SDNY is currently taking a close look at associates of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo in separate corruption cases.

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Deconstructing The Russian Connection

President Trump threw gasoline on the bonfire of the Russian connection over the weekend, tweeting that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.” In case anyone wasn’t getting the message, in another tweet he added, “This is Nixon/Watergate.” A spokesman for Mr. Obama swiftly rejected the charge. On Sunday, the White House demanded that Congress investigate President Trump’s charge of Mr. Obama’s abuse of power.

To Mr. Trump’s critics, these developments are the continuation of a pattern of outrageous statements designed to shift the focus away from his administration. To his supporters, the Russian connection is a baseless concoction whipped up by the media and political opponents—and driven by a steady flow of leaks from within the government—to delegitimize his presidency.

In November, the website Heat Street reported that the FBI obtained a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to examine activities by individuals related to the Trump campaign. Other similar reports followed. If they’re accurate—and color me a skeptic—President Trump can settle the wiretap issue quickly by declassifying and releasing any FISA warrants related to the campaign.

But whatever side you take in the Russian connection, it’s clear this scandal is not going away anytime soon. With that in mind, let’s briefly deconstruct what this mess is actually about.

The central issue of the Russian connection is Kremlin-linked hacking and related activities during the 2016 presidential campaign. Did Mr. Trump or his team have any knowledge of these activities, other than news reports? Did they in any way knowingly collude with agents of the Russian government?

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly went to great lengths to defended Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime. Suspicions grew that the Russians had something damaging on the candidate. That question now haunts his presidency.

The most consequential of the investigations into the Russian connection is led by the FBI. So once again, James Comey is in the hot seat. The House and Senate intelligence committees, judiciary committees, and the House oversight committee all are conducting probes as well. Media reporting and leaks continue to drive the story. Will there be a special select committee, a bi-partisan panel or a special prosecutor? Only if there are additional damaging revelations, and only after the congressional probes play out.

Beyond the 2016 election, two key areas link Mr. Trump to the Russians: his financial dealings in the early years of the new century with figures associated with Russian organized crime, and his history with Atlantic City casinos and customers.

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Who Is Felix Sater?

Felix Sater is back. The Donald Trump business associate last month splashed down in the middle of a New York Times story about a freelanced Ukraine “peace proposal” hand-delivered to the White House by Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen. Mr. Cohen dropped the proposal off in a sealed envelope at the office of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The deal outlined “a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia” in exchange for a withdrawal of Kremlin-aligned forces from eastern Ukraine and a long-term lease of Crimea to Moscow, the Times reported. The government of Ukraine was not pleased. A spokesman called the deal a “gross violation of the [Ukraine] Constitution” by forces “covertly representing Russian interests.”

A Russian-American businessman with a colorful criminal past, Mr. Sater was the middleman for the Ukraine deal. He connected a possibly corrupt Ukrainian politician, the putative author of the proposal, to Mr. Cohen, the Trump confidant. Mr. Sater’s history with Mr. Trump fills in a few blanks about the president’s Russia links prior to the 2016 presidential campaign. The Ukraine case puts him in the here-and-now, at the center of the Trump universe, drawing a line from Mr. Trump’s past activities to his inner circle today.

Every president has sketchy characters in his past. Barack Obama and Tony Rezko, George W. Bush and James Bath, Bill Clinton and Dan Lasater, and David Edwards, and James McDougal, and…don’t get me started. But these figures are usually pushed to the margins of the administration—or right out the door. Mr. Trump has had several opportunities over the years to show Mr. Sater the door, but Mr. Sater keeps appearing in the middle of Mr. Trump’s business.

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Trump & The Anti-Semites

After days of mounting criticism, President Trump yesterday forcefully denounced the rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. Last week, not so much denouncing anti-Semitism, plenty of denouncing the press. History shows a connection between the two.

Following a tour of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, President Trump declared that the institution was “a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

At last week’s press conference, the president took it personally when a reporter asked him about bomb threats called in to Jewish community centers. “So here’s the story, folks,” he said. “Number One, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number Two, the least racist.”

When Jake Tur, the yarmulke-clad reporter from the Hasidic weekly Ami Magazine, began to protest that he had not, in fact, said the president was anti-Semitic, Mr. Trump silenced him. “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he said, then he claimed the reporter “lied” about the question (he didn’t) and then added, “welcome to the world of the media.”

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The Flynn Edge Of The Wedge

So National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has become the first casualty of the Russian connection. Not counting Paul Manafort and Carter Page, thrown off the Trump Train during the presidential campaign. Not counting two Russian intelligence agents arrested for treason, who may or may not have been involved in hacking the U.S. election, who may or may not have been assisting the CIA. Not counting Christopher Steele, the former MI-6 agent and author of the notorious Russian dossier, currently in hiding.

So call Mike Flynn the first high-level casualty of the Russian connection. He’s likely the thin edge of the wedge. His Monday night resignation—ostensibly for misleading the vice president about conversations he had with a Russian official before Mr. Trump took office—has revved up the investigative axis in Washington. What did Mr. Trump and his aides know and when did they know it? Did Mike Flynn just take a bullet for the president?

Before the circus moves on from the spectacle of Flynn fallen in the arena, it’s worth noting that he served his country with honor and distinction for thirty-three years in the United States Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant general. He led dangerous intelligence missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, apparently the same qualities that made him a successful battlefield intelligence leader got him in trouble as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In the wake of the Flynn resignation, Democrats are calling for an “independent investigation” of the Russian connection. What they mean by that is not entirely clear, probably a specially charted commission, a special select committee or a special prosecutor. In any case, none of that is going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

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Putin’s Poisons

As America sets out on its long strange trip with President Trump, nothing seems stranger than his repeated defense of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “But he’s a killer,” Bill O’Reilly reminded the president in a weekend interview. “Putin’s a killer.”

“We’ve got a lot of killers,” the president responded. “What do you think—our country’s so innocent. You think our country’s so innocent?”

Meanwhile in Russia, real killers appear to have made another move to silence a critic of the Putin regime. Last week, the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza collapsed in Moscow and was placed in a medically induced coma. His wife said doctors had diagnosed “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance.”

It’s a diagnosis that has FSB—the Russian intelligence service—written all over it. And it’s not the first time someone tried to whack Mr. Kara-Murza. In May 2015, he suffered multiple organ failure, fell into a coma and was hospitalized for two months. Mr. Kara-Murza believed he was deliberately poisoned for his political activities. His Moscow doctors thought maybe he took the wrong anti-depressant. Oh.

Mr. Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in February, 2015. In an amazing coincidence, all the security cameras on the bridge had been turned off for maintenance. At the time of his murder, Mr. Nemtsov was battling Putin regime corruption and organizing resistance to the war in Ukraine.

Russian intelligence uses the full tool kit against its opponents, but it has a particularly long association with poisons.

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Rex & The Resource Curse

The Trump Presidency has opened with a bang. Death to ObamaCare, a new SCOTUS nominee, a Muslim ban, a Mexican wall, various conspiracies—the Russians and the dossier, the electoral tally, the inauguration crowd size—attacks on the media, on Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Toyota, Hollywood actors, John Lewis, John Brennan, alternative facts, the global gag rule, the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the rebirth of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. The president is tweeting. The president has kept his campaign promises. The president has lost his mind. The town is in tumult. The opposition is aghast. Critics have assigned the president his own Robespierre. Grievances mount. “I haven’t slept in a month,” Kellyanne Conway tells Fox News Sunday. “If you are part of Team Trump, you walk around with these gaping, seeping wounds every single day, and that’s fine.”

Thirteen days into the new administration, the spectacle continues, delicious and appalling and mesmerizing. But in Congress real business is starting to get done. Follow the money. Cui bono? Who benefits? The answers to that timeless investigative question will tell us a lot about Mr. Trump’s Washington.

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The EB-5 Test

In 2008, the director of the Zhoukou Municipal Grain Reserve in China’s agricultural Henan Province began moving money overseas. Qiao Jianjun sent $4 million to U.S. banks. $2 million went to Canada. Another $6 million went elsewhere: Singapore, Switzerland, St. Kitts. Mr. Qiao’s wife obtained a U.S. visa and moved to Seattle and bought a four-bedroom home. In 2011, Mr. Qiao skipped town, flying out of Zhoukou City and joining his wife in the United States. The law caught up with Mrs. Qiao in 2015, arresting her for fraud and money laundering. She’ll do five years. Mr. Qiao is in the wind.

The story of the Qiaos should be of some interest to the new Trump Administration because they arrived in the United States thanks to the controversial EB-5 visa program, which is up for renewal in April. The Obama Administration proposed changes to the program on its way out the door. How the Trump Administration handles the proposed changes will provide an early test of its approach to real-world corruption issues.

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