Within hours of the news breaking that Hillary Clinton exclusively used a private e-mail account while she was secretary of state, employees across the federal government fired up their computers to share their disbelief.
“How is this even possible?” Michael McDonald, general counsel at the National Endowment for the Humanities, asked his deputy Lisette Voyatzis in an e-mail sent March 3, 2015. “They [the State Department] are as ass-backwards as NEH when it comes to records management. That’s comforting,” she replied.
Charles Beamon, the top ethics official at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, sent Clinton’s story staff-wide as a cautionary tale, calling it “another scandal involving the use of personal e-mail for official business.” The acting inspector general at the National Archives and Records Administration sent a tersely worded e-mail to Paul Simms, the agency’s chief records officer. “Were we aware the gov email system was not being used by Ms.Clinton?” He asked. “If we were not aware, why not?”
These new messages, together with previously published government e-mails from incredulous Labor and Treasury department employees, undercut the Democratic front-runner’s persistent claim that her private e-mail set-up was commonplace and aboveboard. But they would have remained on federal servers, far from the public eye, if not for a painstakingly thorough public-records operation launched by America Rising, one of Washington’s most powerful Republican opposition-research firms.
Democratic “oppo” groups have effectively deployed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against Republicans since at least 2012, and America Rising felt that conservative groups weren’t properly utilizing that same ability to scrutinize Democratic candidates. So in the gear-up for the 2016 cycle last May, the group quietly hired an experienced former FOIA attorney in a bid to bolster its ability to search public records for incendiary details on Democrats of all stripes.
“Every day, like people need their coffee, I need to send out two or three FOIAs just to feel better,” says Allan Blutstein, an FOIA veteran with nine years of experience as a public-records lawyer at the Treasury and Justice departments.
Now, after ten months of nonstop FOIA requests, America Rising is launching ARCHIVE, a fully searchable FOIA database with records on more than 90 current or former Democratic officeholders — including Clinton, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and several sitting U.S. senators and governors. The crowd-sourcing effort is America Rising’s latest push in its quest to leave no stone in a Democratic opponent’s record unturned.
“Information is only good if it gets out there, it’s no good sitting on a shelf on a website here,” says America Rising’s executive director, Colin Reed, who hopes both journalists and activists can go after Democrats with the documents.
#share#America Rising rose from the ashes of Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign, when former Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades launched what he envisioned as a “clearinghouse for information on Democrats” in early 2013. The group played an outsized role in the 2014 election, sending dozens of “trackers” to film everything Democrats said or did and deploying the juiciest moments to help sink Senate candidates like Bruce Braley, Michelle Nunn, and Alison Lundergan Grimes.
But even with 2014’s successes, America Rising’s leadership recognized a gap in their capabilities. While they were focused on capturing embarrassing moments from the present, public archives brimming with material from the past lay untouched and waiting. “FOIA, we realized, can be an extremely effective tool to hold people accountable,” says Reed.
‘FOIA, we realized, can be an extremely effective tool to hold people accountable.’
— Colin Reed
It was a realization that Democrats had already beaten them to. American Bridge, the Democratic oppo group that successfully skewered Romney as the “Etch A Sketch” candidate and slammed him for his “binders full of women” comment, deployed FOIA against Republicans early and often throughout the 2012 cycle. The group worked hard to gain access to records on Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, targeted Senate candidates including Ohio’s Josh Mandel with state public-records requests, and generally blanketed federal and state offices with FOIA requests on all manner of GOP candidates. If America Rising — conceived as a direct response to American Bridge’s success — hoped to compete, it would have to open up its own robust FOIA shop.
But filing a public-records request can be a complicated and demoralizing affair. Even experienced journalists often wait two years to receive a pro forma response letter, play phone tag for days with a half-dozen bureaucrats, or slog through a complicated appeals process before finally getting the documents they seek. That’s why America Rising tapped Blutstein, with his insider knowledge of the federal FOIA process, to lead their team. “It’s unique to us in having someone in-house, an expert in the field, who’s able to help us make the FOIAs as effective, as efficient as possible,” Reed says.
Submitting a narrowly tailored request built to slide past bureaucratic traps has, at times, helped America Rising strike pay dirt. The e-mails showing shock over Clinton’s e-mail practices were retrievable only because the group had asked for messages sent in the first few days after the story broke. A broader request would have been stalled for years, or even outright rejected as overly burdensome. Other successful requests — including copies of former Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu’s D.C. property taxes and a 1985 littering citation from former Colorado senator and ardent environmentalist Mark Udall — came about because America Rising knew how to specifically tailor the question.
Still, the vast majority of the America Rising’s requests end up with very little of interest to the press or public. But that’s okay for the oppo group: “You’re not always going to find good stuff, but the fact that you looked and didn’t get anything at least tells you that there’s nothing there that you could have missed,” says Reed.
Any documents collected by America Rising, a self-professed “clearinghouse,” that are not immediately useful go into storage, ready and waiting for a well-timed election, scandal, or policy issue that could grant them newfound relevance. It’s why the group keeps a close eye on Joaquín and Julián Castro, two brothers — a Texas congressman and the current secretary of Housing and Urban Development, respectively — thought to have a bright future in the Democratic party. There’s no indication yet that either will make it to the big leagues. But if and when they do, America Rising will already have the relevant files on hand.
“Any current Democratic governor, attorney general, and mayor of a populous city are targets for FOIA requests,” says Blutstein. “If they’re not up there now, they will be.”
All of that makes the Republican oppo group very comfortable with its chances against American Bridge this time around, even with the peculiar uncertainties of this year’s presidential cycle. “Well before the 2016 election year, get some of these FOIAs in the water, see what we were able to get back, and then inform the direction we wanted to go in the closing months of this year and the cycle,” says Jeff Bechdel, America Rising’s communications director. “In that perspective I think it’s given us a leg up. We’re ahead of the game from where we were in 2014.”