WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Senator Bob Menendez, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, yesterday denounced the State Department’s attempts to obstruct investigations into reports of politically-motivated retaliation against career Department employees.
In a letter to Secretary Pompeo, Rep. Engel and Senator Menendez demanded the Department comply with past Congressional requests for information on this matter, stretching back over the past year.
They wrote, “To date, despite three specific requests and multiple follow-up efforts by our offices, the Department has failed to respond to our requests for interviews or provide any responsive records. After nearly a year, it suggests the State Department is stonewalling a legitimate congressional request for information on matters that are squarely within our Committees’ oversight jurisdiction. We are therefore restating our demand for a response to our prior queries on this matter and are prepared to use appropriate tools at our disposal to prompt a substantive response.”
The lawmakers continued, “As you stated when you served alongside us in the House of Representatives, it is unacceptable for Congress to take a back seat to FOIA requesters when it comes to the crucial work of overseeing our national security apparatus. You were right then, and we expect you do the right thing now.”
The letter sets clear deadlines for State Department compliance. The Department must submit all documents requested by March 21 and facilitate Committee interviews with Department officials implicated in this matter by April 30.
Today’s letter was one of many congressional inquiries into reports of Administration officials targeting career State Department employees for their perceived political beliefs or allegiance to the Administration political agenda.
- March 15, 2018: Rep. Engel and then-Ranking Member Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight Committee requested documents relating to these practices.
- June 19, 2018: Rep. Engel, Ranking Member Menendez, and Rep. Cummings requested documents following reports of political vetting and targeting of career diplomats and employees of international institutions.
- August 22, 2018: After reports that an Administration official implicated in the political targeting was promoted, Reps. Engel and Cummings again demanded State Department records.
Full text of today’s letter can be found here and below:
Dear Mr. Secretary:
We remain concerned about ongoing allegations of politically-motivated retaliation against Department of State personnel and the Department’s failure to provide documents and interviews that we, along with other members of Congress, have previously requested. On March 15, 2018 (see attachment A), in response to publicly reported allegations of prohibited personnel practices against career officials at the Department of State, then-Ranking Members Engel and Cummings of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, respectively, requested the State Department provide the records cited below to their respective Committees by March 28, 2018:
(1) all documents and communications referring or relating to any reassignment or proposed reassignment that was considered or ordered since January 20, 2017, of career or civil service employees at the Department;
(2) all documents and communications referring or relating to any proposed or actual reassignment or removal of career or civil service employees at the Department since January 20, 2017, based on alleged personal political beliefs, prior service with previous Administrations, or work on prior Administrations’ foreign policy priorities, including any documents authored by, copying, involving, or referring to:
(a) Christine Ciccone;
(b) Makan Delrahim;
(c) Sean Doocey;
(d) Julia Haller;
(e) Brian Hook;
(f) Edward Lacey;
(g) Matthew Mowers; or
(h) Margaret Peterlin; and
(3) all documents and communications referring or relating to proposed or actual personnel actions since January 20, 2017, against Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, including the curtailment of her detail to the Policy Planning staff.
In the March 2018 letter, then-Ranking Members Engel and Cummings also requested transcribed interviews of the officials listed in paragraph 2 above.
In the months that followed, our Committees continued to learn of a worsening track record of retaliation against career State Department employees. In a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on May 23, 2018, you committed to then-Ranking Member Engel to provide a timeline for providing documents previously requested on this matter. That the Department failed to provide either this timeline or any substantive response to address these ongoing allegations of prohibited personnel practices only added to our concern. On June 19, 2018 (see attachment B), in the wake of media reports that a political appointee had been “vetting career diplomats and American employees of international institutions to determine whether they are loyal to President Donald Trump and his political agenda,” we, along with then-Ranking Member Cummings, wrote the Department again to request that the Department produce the below documents by June 29, 2018:
(1) all documents or communications referring or relating to State Department Senior Adviser Mari Stull’s efforts to categorize, vet, or research career State Department employees and employees of international institutions, including searches on social media websites;
(2) all documents or communications referring or relating to lists of career State Department employees and employees of international institutions created by Mari Stull or any other political appointee at the State Department; and
(3) all documents or communications referring or relating to research conducted by political appointees relating to perceived political views of career employees.
The June 2018 letter also requested that the Department “preserve all documents, communications, and other data (‘records’) that may be required for our oversight and investigative duties.”
On August 22, 2018, then-Ranking Members Engel and Cummings wrote to the Department once again (see attachment C). This time, it was because the Administration had not only repeatedly ignored oversight requests, but had chosen to promote Brian Hook, one of the individuals reportedly most closely associated with allegations of abuse of power and retaliation against career officials, rather than investigating and appropriately responding to his alleged actions. In the August 22 letter, then-Ranking Members Engel and Cummings reiterated the interview and document requests that had been made previously.
To date, despite three specific requests and multiple follow-up efforts by our offices, the Department has failed to respond to our requests for interviews or provide any responsive records. After nearly a year, it suggests the State Department is stonewalling a legitimate congressional request for information on matters that are squarely within our Committees’ oversight jurisdiction. We are therefore restating our demand for a response to our prior queries on this matter and are prepared to use appropriate tools at our disposal to prompt a substantive response.
Ignoring reports of political litmus tests and retaliation at the Department of State has not made the problem go away. Rather, continuing reports of retaliation suggest it has exacerbated it, while morale at the Department—not to mention the careers of several employees—has suffered.
We understand the State Department has at various times claimed that it cannot provide documents while a State Department Office of the Inspector General (IG) investigation regarding the same matter is ongoing (see Attachment D). This position is false and lacks a foundation in either law or the Department’s own past practice. As a co-equal branch of government, Congress has the constitutional responsibility and authority to provide oversight and ensure that Executive Branch governance is effective, efficient, and ethical.
While we appreciate the crucial role of inspectors general, Congress’ oversight activities cannot be displaced or delayed simply because the Executive Branch is simultaneously in the process of investigating itself. Although the Executive may not wish to formally comment on or characterize the importance of documents and facts while an IG investigation is pending, this in no way provides a justification for withholding the documents and witnesses themselves from Congress to conduct its own investigation and reach its own conclusions. We remind you of the clear precedent that the State Department established when it produced large amounts of material to various House committee chairs who were involved in investigating issues related to the email practices of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This production occurred while numerous other investigations—including by inspectors general—were ongoing.
The Department has already acknowledged in a court filing on March 1, 2019 that it lacks any legal argument to delay production of the same documents to private entities under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and that it has recently located more than 1,300 potentially responsive records in a FOIA case that overlaps substantially with the records we seek. In that case, which was filed nearly eight months after the requests by Congress, the Department plans to begin rolling productions on April 17, 2019. As you stated when you served alongside us in the House of Representatives, it is unacceptable for Congress to take a back seat to FOIA requesters when it comes to the crucial work of overseeing our national security apparatus. You were right then, and we expect you do the right thing now.
To the extent that the Department may have been relying on a legal theory that our requests somehow lapsed at the end of the 115th Congress, we write today to dispense with that argument and hereby formally restate our prior requests. Therefore, we request that the Department provide the following no later than March 21, 2019:
(1) Any and all documents responsive to the March 15, 2018 letter (Attachment A);
(2) Any and all documents responsive to the June 19, 2018 letter (Attachment B);
(3) A schedule of availability for the Committees to conduct transcribed interviews with each of the following individuals, with the first interview to be conducted no later than April 1, 2019, and with all interviews to be conducted no later than April 30, 2019:
(a) Christine Ciccone;
(b) Makan Delrahim;
(c) Sean Doocey;
(d) Julia Haller;
(e) Brian Hook;
(f) Edward Lacey;
(g) Matthew Mowers;
(h) Margaret Peterlin;
(i) Andrew Veprek;
(j) John Zadrozny; and
(k) Kevin Moley
The Committees understand that certain of these individuals listed above are no longer employed by the Department of State. The Committees will also be contacting such individuals directly, but are amenable to the Department, consistent with its past practice, playing a coordinating role in arranging such transcribed interviews. The Committees also note that the individuals named in items (i), (j), and (k) on this list were previously requested by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee separate from the March 2018 and June 2018 letters referenced above.
Consistent with past practice by the Department, we also request that you produce, also by March 21, 2019:
(4) Any and all documents that are in the possession, custody, and control, of the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State which relate in any way to allegations of prohibited personnel practices against career employees including or similar to those described in Attachments A and B;
(5) Any and all documents, without redactions, that have been produced to any FOIA requester or plaintiff on any matter that is related to the subject of Committees’ inquiry as detailed above and in the accompanying letters.
(6) Any and all documents, without redactions, that have been identified as potentially responsive in American Oversight v. U.S. Department of State, 1:18-cv-02565 (D.D.C).
Because these documents have already been collected and are either in the process of being reviewed or have already been produced, this should impose no additional burden on the Department. Staff for both of our Committees will be in contact with the Bureau of Legislative Affairs to provide instructions on how best to provide these documents to the Committees.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this request.
# # #