News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Open Government
Matt Mills McKnight/Getty Images

"Americans are confronted each day with corruption," writes Austin Evers.

Corruption and voter suppression leave a paper trail

Evers is executive director American Oversight, an ethics watchdog focused on the Trump administration.

Americans are confronted each day with corruption. It blares from the Trump administration and many state governments. Public evidence alone helps explain why Americans feel that the system is rigged and that corporate and shadowy interests write policy to entrench their power at the expense of regular people. It is seen as politics as usual, a contest mediated through inane and exasperating punditry.

But in reality, the corruption is often starker, spelled out in black and white, in ways that are hard to write off. And when exposed it can be truly shocking — and can break Americans from viewing it as routine.

For that reason, open records laws should be elevated as crucial tools for making corruption resonate. My organization specializes in using such laws to expose primary-source evidence of corruption. But more organizations advocating against governmental misconduct or special interests should use those tools to make their arguments tangible.

The three years of the Trump administration have revealed the power of such tangible evidence, a notable recent example being the summary transcript of the president's call with his Ukrainian counterpart at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. The release of damning text messages exchanged by State Department officials regarding President Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens very likely had a greater effect on the poll numbers than secondhand reports would have.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

And it's not just Trump. The paper trail from administration agencies has also revealed his Cabinet officials' self-dealing, bias and aloofness. After Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson steadfastly claimed he had nothing to do with the purchase of a $31,000 dining set for his office, we uncovered documents showing he and his wife were, in fact, involved in the selection. Though Carson was recently cleared of legal "wrongdoing," his lies stand. And over at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt found it impossible to stay in office after American Oversight and others used open records requests to show profligate spending on unnecessary office upgrades and personal errands.

Just as receipts can reveal misuse of public resources, calendars that show how Cabinet secretaries spend their time reveal their priorities better than press releases. We have litigated to obtain the calendars of many Trump officials, and in 2017 we exposed how Pruitt had spent his first year in office catering exclusively to regulated industries, ignoring environmental groups or vulnerable constituencies. The release of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's calendars revealed how she has turned her agency into a Friends of Mitch McConnell operation.

The paper trail also gives texture to the way the administration's anti-immigrant policies take shape in real life, especially when coupled with abuses of power. For example, emails we uncovered show that in 2017 Kris Kobach, then the Kansas secretary of state, attempted to use his connections at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find out the immigration status of nearly 300 residents of neighboring Nebraska. Think about that: He was shopping an unverified list of suspected undocumented immigrants to the deportation authorities. We also uncovered documents — including emails that show immigration officials cutting a question that would have allowed asylum-seekers to avoid having to wait in Mexico if they feared for their safety — that demonstrate how the administration's immigration policies are designed to close America's doors.

The success of open-records requests and litigation against the Trump administration points to the promise of the tactic elsewhere. Too often, coalitions fighting for democracy reform and voting rights engage in battles at the policy level, issuing dueling legislative proposals and organizing opposition to voter-suppression measures, and do not invest in exposing the paper trail left behind by opponents. But when evidence comes out that shows the inner workings of those anti-voter campaigns, the results are explosive.

Consider the files of Thomas Hofeller, which detailed gerrymandering efforts in North Carolina as well as the partisan motivations of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. As noted in the "Corruption Consultants" report by the Center for American Progress, consultants' and officials' own public statements exposed the political motivations of North Carolina's 2013 voting law and cut down claims the law was merely about preventing fraudulent voting.

Those comments, along with incredible documents that exposed the law's discriminatory intent, drove a panel of federal judges to conclude North Carolina Republicans engaged in voter suppression with "surgical precision." Many already "knew" about the intent behind redistricting efforts, but the shock of seeing it in black and white helped make the jump from common-sense reasoning to irrefutable evidence.

Open-records laws are citizen statutes; any organization operating in this space can utilize them to obtain more evidence like that. And they should. American Oversight recently launched an initiative to add open-records capacity to the voter-suppression fights in Florida, Georgia and Texas, with more states on the horizon. In addition to uncovering evidence of corruption, our hope is that other organizations — local and national — will see the value of open-records work to expose the misconduct and misguided motivations of opponents.

Bad actors aren't just making bad policy; they're leaving behind records that often reveal corrupt intentions. And Americans should see that corruption in black and white.

© Issue One. All rights reserved.