Tag Archives: Freedom of Information Act

USDA and Meatpacking Industry Collaborated to Undermine Covid-19 Response, Documents Show

Hundreds of emails obtained by Public Citizen and American Oversight offer a rare inside look at the meat industry’s power and access to the highest levels of government.

By Brett Wilkins, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 9-15-2020

Some critics have called keeping meat processing plants open during the Covid-19 pandemic a “death sentence” for workers.. Screenshot: CBS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the Covid-19 pandemic, as shown in documents published Monday by Public Citizen and American Oversight.

The documents (pdf), which the groups obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, reveal that a week before President Donald Trump issued his controversial executive order in April to keep meatpacking plants open—overriding closure orders from local health officials—a leading meat industry lobby group drafted a proposed executive order that was strikingly similar to Trump’s directive. Continue reading

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‘The Public Has a Right to Know’: Fed Refuses to Release Documents on Fossil Fuel Industry’s Covid-19 Bailouts

“As the climate crisis demands an abrupt shift away from fossil fuels, the federal government should not be creating programs to bail out these polluters.”

By Jake Johnson, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-9-2020

“The Federal Reserve was tasked with creating a massive program to protect workers’ livelihoods during an intense economic and public health crisis. We should, at the very least, expect transparency about how the program is structured,” said Food & Water Action attorney Adam Carlesco. (Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr/cc)

The Federal Reserve has missed a deadline to release documents requested by environmental group Food & Water Action in May to reveal the extent to which the central bank has used one of its major Covid-19 lending programs to rescue the faltering oil and gas industry.

“The public has a right to know if the Fed created an oil and gas bailout at the behest of an industry that has wreaked havoc on our air, water, climate, and potentially the global financial system,” Food & Water Action attorney Adam Carlesco said in a statement. “As the climate crisis demands an abrupt shift away from fossil fuels, the federal government should not be creating programs to bail out these polluters.” Continue reading

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Trump Friends and Family Cleared for Millions in Small Business Bailout

Beneficiaries of the PPP included a lettuce farming venture backed by Trump’s son, Kushner companies, and a dentist who golfs with the president. The figures were released after a lawsuit by several news organizations, including ProPublica.

By Jack GillumIsaac ArnsdorfJake Pearson and Mike Spies  Published 7-6-2020 by ProPublica

Businesses tied to President Donald Trump’s family and associates stand to receive as much as $21 million in government loans designed to shore up payroll expenses for companies struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal data released Monday.

A hydroponic lettuce farm backed by Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., applied for at least $150,000 in Small Business Administration funding. Albert Hazzouri, a dentist frequently spotted at Mar-a-Lago, asked for a similar amount. A hospital run by Maria Ryan, a close associate of Trump lawyer and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, requested more than $5 million. Several companies connected to the president’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, could get upward of $6 million.

There’s no ban on businesses connected to Trump’s orbit receiving money. Democrats added a provision to the CARES Act excluding government officials and their family members from receiving some bailout funds, but not those from the PPP.

The firms sought funding under the Paycheck Protection Program, one of the Trump administration’s sweeping pandemic relief efforts. Created in late March by the CARES Act, it allowed small businesses — generally, those with fewer than 500 employees — to apply for loans of up to $10 million. The loans can be forgiven if used to cover payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

The program paid out $521 billion to almost 4.9 million companies in an effort to provide relief for small businesses and their workers amid the sudden economic shock brought on by the pandemic. As applications slowed after the initial rush, $132 billion remained unspent, and Congress voted to extend the program.

After resisting releasing the names, the government bowed to pressure from critics and watchdog groups. On Monday, the administration disclosed only those entities that were approved by banks for loans over $150,000. A consortium of news organizations, including ProPublica, has sued the administration under the Freedom of Information Act to release the full list of recipients and loan details.

The program has been criticized for including some loan recipients, particularly large, publicly traded companies, and for favoring wealthier businesses that had existing relationships with banks. In some cases customers could essentially skip the line. Overall, however, many economists praise the PPP for having gotten billions to companies relatively quickly.

The New York Observer, the news website that Kushner ran before entering the White House and is still owned by his brother-in-law’s investment firm, was approved for between $350,000 and $1 million, data shows. A company called Princeton Forrestal LLC that is at least 40 percent owned by Kushner family members, according to a 2018 securities filing, was approved for $1 million to $2 million. Esplanade Livingston LLC, whose address is the same as that of the Kushner Companies real estate development business, was approved for $350,000 to $1 million. The company’s Chief Operating Officer, Peter Febo, responded, “Several of our hotels have applied for federal loans, in accordance with all guidelines, with a vast majority of funds going to furloughed employees.” The loans to Kushner-related companies were first reported by The Daily Beast.

In addition, up to $2 million was approved for the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, a nonprofit religious school in Livingston, N.J., that’s named for Jared Kushner’s grandfather and supported by the family.

In April, a bank approved a loan of between $150,000 and $350,000 for the Pennsylvania dental practice of Albert Hazzouri, who golfs with Trump and frequents Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. In 2017, Hazzouri used his access to the president to pass him a policy proposal on club stationery on behalf of the American Dental Association. He addressed the note to Trump “Dear King.”

Hazzouri also leaned on his relationship with Trump in an unsuccessful bid to obtain a dentistry license to expand his business in Florida. Hazzouri didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment Monday.

Firms tied to the president’s children also stand to benefit from the program. A small indoor lettuce farming business applied for funds between $150,000 and $350,000, SBA data show. Trump Jr. had invested in Eden Green Technology, a vertical farming company just south of Dallas, whose co-chair, Gentry Beach, was a Trump campaign fundraiser.

Trump Jr. purchased his shares as Beach sought Trump administration funding for his other global business interests, ProPublica first reported in December 2018.

The company has said Trump Jr. played no role in running Eden Green and was brought in during “U.S. friends and family fundraising efforts.” A spokesman, Trevor Moore, said that the company “followed the standard procedure” in applying for the PPP loan and that “receiving it has provided for the preservation of 18 jobs.” It’s not clear how much Trump Jr. invested or whether he’s been paid any dividends since purchasing his shares. Neither Trump Jr. nor a spokesman returned a message seeking comment.

Monday’s list included a Manhattan law firm whose marquee attorney has fiercely defended Trump for almost two decades. Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP — whose managing partner, Marc Kasowitz, was at one point the president’s top lawyer in the special counsel’s Russia investigation — was set to receive between $5 million and $10 million from Citibank, data show. (The largest loan a company could seek was $10 million.)

Once dubbed the “Donald Trump of lawyering” by The New York Times, Kasowitz represented Trump in the Trump University fraud lawsuit. and during the 2016 campaign he helped keep Trump’s 1990 divorce from being unsealed. ProPublica reported three years ago that Kasowitz bragged to friends that he made between $10 million and $30 million per year.

A law firm spokeswoman said its employees have maintained their full salary and benefits thanks to the PPP loan and “substantial cost-saving measures and greatly reduced partner distributions.” The firm has about 400 employees, data show. She said neither Kasowitz nor the firm had any conversations with anyone in the administration about the loan. Other major law firms, such as Boies Schiller Flexner and Wiley Rein, also received loans.

The loans helped a hospital executive tightly linked to another Trump attorney and confidant, Rudy Giuliani. Cottage Hospital, a 25-bed critical access facility in Woodsville, New Hampshire, received between $2 million and $5 million in PPP loans. The hospital’s CEO, Maria Ryan, is a longtime close associate of Giuliani’s.

During the last few years, Ryan has accompanied Giuliani on trips to Jerusalem, where the two visited the Hadassah Medical Organization, and to London, where they attended a two-game series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Last September, Giuliani brought Ryan to a state dinner at the White House.

Ryan currently co-hosts a talk radio show with Giuliani called “Uncovering the Truth.” She has referred to Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, as her “business partner.” Cottage Hospital’s annual revenues typically exceed $30 million, according to its most recent publicly available federal tax return. Ryan’s salary, the last filing shows, is nearly $300,000.

“Mr. Giuliani has nothing to do with the PPP loan,” Ryan wrote in an email to ProPublica. “We applied like any other small business through our bank.”

The loan data released Monday does not reveal the $30 billion in loans that have been canceled. Nor does it provide specific dollar amounts, but instead ranges of loan amounts. Businesses that spend the money according to key provisions of the program, which mainly involve continuing to pay workers, will have the loans forgiven.

Last week, Trump signed legislation to extend the program until early August.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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Critics Condemn Inclusion of Anti-Semitic, White Nationalist Blog Post in Daily Briefing Sent to Immigration Judges by Trump’s DOJ

“There is no bottom,” Rep. Ilhan Omar said of the Trump administration

By Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 8-23-2019

An immigration office in the U.S. Department of Justice sent an anti-Semitic blog post to the entire immigration court system this week, taken from an anti-immigration white nationalist website. (Photo: Ad DeCort/Flickr/cc)

A nationwide organization of U.S. immigration judges demanded immediate action to ensure that the U.S. Department of Justice operates without xenophobia, racism, and anti-semitism after the department sent an email with a link to a white nationalist website to employees of the immigration court system.

As Buzzfeed News first reported late Thursday, the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) sent a link to a blog post from the white nationalist website VDare, attacking immigration judges and calling for the decertification of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), as part of a regular news briefing it sends to all court employees. Continue reading

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Challenging EPA’s New FOIA Rule, Suit Seeks to Stop Trump’s “Shameful Attempt to Keep Americans in the Dark”

“We have a right to know what EPA is trying to hide and which Trump appointee is trying to hide it.”

By Andrea Germanos, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-24-2019

EPA headquarters in Washington. EPA/Flickr

A new lawsuit seeks to kill a recent Trump administration rule that critics say deals a blow to transparency by giving the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to shoot down public information requests.

The new rule—put in place without public input—was published on the Federal Register June 26 and goes into effect July 26. Continue reading

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Under Cover of Shutdown, Trump Admin Quietly Moves to Deprive ‘American People of Their Right to Know What Government Is Doing’

Critics warn proposed changes to how the Interior Department handles FOIA requests “are designed to facilitate more official stonewalling and delays in producing public records.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 12-31-2018

Outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2016, when he served as a congressman for Montana. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Amid the chaos of the ongoing government shutdown and winter holidays, critics on Monday are calling out the Trump administration for quietly moving to make it harder for the public to find out what goes on behind closed doors at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

proposed new rule (pdf) filed to the Federal Register on Friday would enable the department—which, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been responsible for pushing through President Donald Trump’s widely condemned regulatory rollbacks—to ignore public records requests that officials deem too “unreasonably burdensome.” Continue reading

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Senate Dems Threaten Suit to Get Kavanaugh Records as Poll Shows Trump Nominee Least Popular in Decades

“Not only is Brett Kavanaugh extreme, he’s wildly unpopular. The momentum is on our side, and we’re not done yet.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 8-16-2018

While Senate Democrats continue to fight for records pertaining to President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaughthreatening on Thursday to sue the National Archives for documents detailing his time working for the second Bush administration—a new poll from CNN revealed Kavanaugh is the least popular nominee in more than three decades.

The survey (pdf), conducted by SSRS and published Thursday, found that only 37 percent of Americans want the Senate to confirm Kavanaugh, which CNN noted “is the lowest in polling dating back to Robert Bork’s nomination by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.” Forty percent of those polled said they oppose Trump’s nominee, while 22 percent said they have no opinion. Continue reading

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Geek Squad’s Relationship with FBI Is Cozier Than We Thought

 

By Aaron Mackey. Published 3-5-2018 by Electronic Freedom Foundation

After the prosecution of a California doctor revealed the FBI’s ties to a Best Buy Geek Squad computer repair facility in Kentucky, new documents released to EFF show that the relationship goes back years. The records also confirm that the FBI has paid Geek Squad employees as informants.

EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit last year to learn more about how the FBI uses Geek Squad employees to flag illegal material when people pay Best Buy to repair their computers. The relationship potentially circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights. Continue reading

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Groups to Probe Why Pruitt Put ”Pesticide Industry Profits Ahead of Children’s Health”

‘Americans have a right to know who influenced the EPA to suddenly reverse course’

By Andrea Germanos, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 4-12-2017

“Americans have a right to know who influenced the EPA to suddenly reverse course and put pesticide industry profits ahead of children’s health,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. (Photo: Austin Valley/flickr/cc)

How is it that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt came to the decision to reject his own agency’s science and reject a ban the insecticide chlorpyrifos?

Watchdog group American Oversight and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) want to know, and are ready to sue to get to the bottom of the matter.

Pruitt’s March 29 decision to deny a 10-year-old petition brought forth by Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council sparked outrage from public health advocates and environmentalists who say the move—which is what the chemical’s maker, Dow, had wanted—was unacceptable in the face of studies linking the nerve agent to numerous adverse effects, from contaminating water to harming children’s brain development. Continue reading

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The FBI’s New FOIA Policy Is a Big Step Backward

By Fiona Morgan. Published 2-26-2017 by Free Press

Dust off your fax machine. The FBI is planning to take a big step backward for government transparency.

As of March 1, the Bureau will no longer accept Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests via email. Anyone seeking public records from the FBI will have to use a new online portal — or send requests via fax or snail mail.

Online FOIA portals may seem like a good idea in theory, but government agencies make them difficult to use — with way too many burdensome requirements.

Continue reading

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