American Oversight Sues State Department for Evidence of Alleged Political Loyalty Tests

Watchdog’s Suit Seeks Records Expected to be Targets of Upcoming Congressional Investigation

Washington, DC, Nov. 7, 2018 – Nonpartisan ethics watchdog American Oversight today sued the Department of State to uncover evidence of alleged political retaliation. This is the watchdog’s eighth suit in its Parallel Investigations Initiative, which aims to amplify congressional oversight by targeting records that will likely also be sought in committee investigations after the House of Representatives changes hands.

“The State Department is supposed to be serving the interests of the American people, not helping the president wage his personal vendetta,” said Melanie Sloan, Senior Advisor at American Oversight. “If political appointees are undermining State’s effectiveness and wasting agency time with retaliatory fishing expeditions, the public should know.” 

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According to news reports, State political appointee Mari Stull has aggressively scrutinized career diplomats’ loyalty to President Trump and his political agenda. Stull, a senior advisor in the international organization bureau and former wine-blogger, has reportedly vetted career diplomats’ social media accounts and work records at State to determine if officials ideologically deviate from the president. News of Stull’s actions followed reports that a career State official of Iranian descent was abruptly reassigned after political appointees falsely accused her of having close ties to the Iranian regime and undermining the president’s agenda.  

Two federal watchdogs have opened investigations into Stull’s alleged activities. State’s Department of Inspector General opened an investigation this summer into retaliation by political appointees after multiple complaints, and widened its investigation in September. The Office of Special Counsel is also looking into political appointees’ alleged reprisals against career officials.

American Oversight’s lawsuit is part of its Parallel Investigations Initiative, mirroring document requests that will likely be made by House committees as they investigate the administration. In June, three members of Congress—including Reps. Eliot Engel and Elijah Cummings, who will likely chair the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, respectively—demanded State Department documents related to reports of political retaliation. American Oversight’s suit seeks many of the same records. 

“The president’s reign of impunity is over,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “With a Congress finally intent on investigating the Trump administration’s culture of corruption, American Oversight is poised to block any attempts by the administration to wriggle out of oversight. If they obstruct or delay Congress, we’ll release documents through FOIA.” 

In addition to today’s suit, American Oversight has filed seven other lawsuits that mirror probable congressional investigations. The watchdog has filed suits to shed light on the role that President Trump and the Trump Organization played in reversing a long-time plan to relocate the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters outside of Washington, DC; to investigate the possibility that three members of the president’s Mar-a-Lago club have influenced policy at Veterans Affairs’ and the Department of Defense; and to uncover records detailing the administration’s failed response to hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico. American Oversight will file two more lawsuits this week in preparation for expected congressional investigations. 

American Oversight’s suit comes after State failed to respond to respond to numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for documents related to Stull and other political appointees’ alleged retaliatory activities, including:

  • All email sent by Stull including terms related to political loyalty, including “loyalist,” “deep state,” “MAGA,” and “holdover;”
  • Certain email communications between Stull and any non-government email addresses;
  • Certain email communications between Stull and members of Congress, congressional staff, or White House officials;
  • Stull’s calendar entries;
  • Emails between State leadership or political appointees referencing terms related to efforts to create a reported “loyalty” list;
  • Emails sent by Kevin Moley or Nikki Haley referencing terms that may be contained in emails discussing the ideological or partisan loyalty of State Department civil servants; and
  • Emails from or to top State officials, including Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson, referencing Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, the career official who was reassigned. 

Click here to see the complaint.

Learn more about American Oversight’s Parallel Investigations Initiative.

American Oversight is a non-partisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog and is the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration. American Oversight has filed more than 50 public records lawsuits since March 2017, uncovering and publishing tens of thousands of documents including senior officials’ calendars, emails, and expense records. Through its Parallel Investigations Initiative, American Oversight uses targeted FOIA requests and litigation to prevent the Trump administration from obstructing congressional oversight. Follow us at @weareoversight and learn more at http://www.americanoversight.org.