A week before Jason Leopold at VICE News reported that a FOIA filed along with Ryan Shapiro revealed the FBI may have been (and might still be) investigating Donald Trump, I filed several FOIA requests with various federal agencies on the senior members of the Donald Trump campaign and members of his transition team. As of December 21st, several agencies have responded to the requests sent through MuckRock with indications that at least two of Donald Trump’s top advisors and cabinet picks were the subject of various federal investigations while they were consulting with the Trump campaign. Most importantly, the proceedings against them are ongoing.
Citing his desire to have people who “made a fortune,” Trump has selected a number of super-rich individuals with little to no government experience (even the former Governor of Texas’ idea of public policy is solving problems with prayer) while either not doing the due diligence on them, or not caring about the results. In this case, the result is a set of cabinet picks whose combined wealth is higher than 1/3 of American households combined, with one person whom Trump wanted to add to his cabinet being under investigation for financial crimes and the other, nominated to be Secretary of the Treasury, also being tied to a federal investigation – most likely over financial issues involving bankruptcy, conflicts of interest and possible financial crimes.
The SEC Investigation
The first request was to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over their investigation of the improper use of Port Authority funds under Chris Christie. According to reports in April 2014, the SEC had joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s probe of the improper use of Port Authority funds. Since then there has been little public word on the SEC probe. Assuming the probe had ended, and with its renewed relevance due to Chris Christie’s advisory role in the Trump campaign and transition, I requested the records. Since then, Chris Christie was reportedly offered (and refused to accept) several cabinet level positions, an Ambassadorship and other high level positions.
The SEC took only a week to respond. Its letter essentially consisted of two parts. The first asserted that they had found records which were compiled “for law enforcement purposes” and that the release “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement activities.”
The letter then tries to deflect from the leak in the cited article with a non-denial denial stating that their policy is not to comment publicly on investigations and using roundabout language to remind me (and everyone else) that people are innocent until proven guilty.
Despite the non-denial denial, the requirements for the exemption are quite clear. The Department of Justice’s guide to Exemption 7(A) states that:
It is beyond question that Exemption 7(A) is temporal in nature and is not intended to “endlessly protect material simply because it [is] in an investigatory file.” Thus, as a general rule, Exemption 7(A) may be invoked so long as the law enforcement proceeding involved remains pending, or so long as an enforcement proceeding is fairly regarded as prospective or as preventative. [emphasis added]
The FBI Investigation
A request to the FBI, filed on the same day as the request to the SEC, targeted the media companies of Steven Mnuchin, who had used his position as a Hollywood financier to buy himself Executive Producer titles on movies. A week after the request was filed, Trump announced that Mnuchin, who had been the campaign’s National Finance Chairman, was his pick for Secretary of the Treasury. Unlike Chris Christie, Mnuchin has indicated that he will accept he nomination. One week after he accepted the nomination, the Section Chief for the FBI’s FOIA office responded with letters saying that they found no records on Mnuchin’s company RatPac-Dune Entertainment – but that they had found them for his other media company, Relativity Media. Like the SEC, they cited FOIA Exemption 7(A), indicating a law enforcement “proceeding.”
This investigation is most likely tied to the financial hanky-panky that surrounded Mnuchin’s tenure at Relativity Media, its declaration of bankruptcy and its relationship with OneWest Bank. Variety reported that:
Relativity agreed to let OneWest take $32 million from accounts the studio received for use of its film library. Less than two weeks before the bankruptcy, on July 17, Mnuchin’s bank swept $17.9 million more from an account normally used to pay residuals and participation fees to performers, writers and others… Mnuchin had left Relativity just days before the company reached an agreement with OneWest to extend the loan deadline and allow the bank to claim that money.
This conflict of interest which Mnuchin allegedly resigned to “avoid” is not the only investigation that Steven Mnuchin or OneWest appear to be tied to. Mnuchin sold OneWest back to CIT Group, which informed its investors it had been served with multiple subpoenas by the Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General. A FOIA request by the California Reinvestment Coalition determined that “CIT Group [and its reverse mortgage subsidiary] Financial Freedom were responsible for 39 percent of the 41,237 reverse mortgage foreclosures in the United States since April 2009 despite having an estimated market share of only 17 percent in the reverse mortgage market.”
Notably, Team Trump is backing away from his promises to “drain the swamp” along with his promises to “lock her up.”
There are a number of pending requests that may identify ongoing investigations or law enforcement proceedings tied to Trump’s advisors and cabinet picks. Details of these requests and their results will be released as the responses come in. Given Donald Trump’s pattern of hiring people under federal investigation, there’s every reason to believe that these investigations exist. Edwin Meese III, for instance, is a senior advisor to the Trump transition who was forced to resign from government service after multiple investigations, including ones related to Iran-Contra corruption and arms-smuggling and the financial crimes surrounding Wedtech, which produced roughly 100,000 pages of FBI files between the two.
When told about the FBI and SEC’s revelation of these ongoing investigations, Ryan Shapiro said that “unsurprisingly, some of Trump’s appointees and close associates turn out likely to be as corrupt as the President-elect himself. If only the FBI had spent as much time during the election publicly broadcasting its ongoing investigations of Trump and his cronies as the Bureau did its investigations of Hillary Clinton…”
Readers are encouraged to take a look at Operation 45, Shapiro’s project to FOIA and sue the Trump administration over public records, if they want to support efforts to force the government to comply with FOIA and release the records. Ryan Shapiro and I will discuss Operation 45 and the incoming Trump administration on next month’s special inauguration episode of The Listening Station podcast.