American Oversight (AO) is an activist and litigation organization focusing on filing open records requests targeting Republican interests, especially the administration of President Donald Trump. The organization was launched in March 2017, following and in response to the election of President Trump’s inauguration and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. As of January 2019, all of its investigations and litigation are directed at Republicans; it claims to be “the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration,” with more than 1000 open records requests and 56 lawsuits filed in 2018.
The group was involved in opposing the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 and filed records requests and legal actions during that summer seeking documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the George W. Bush White House and as an attorney working on the investigations of then-President Bill Clinton with the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC).  Announcing its desire to obtain information regarding the OIC, AO warned the records might show Kavanaugh had leaked secret grand jury information to the media while working for the OIC. But once released the records produced no evidence of wrongdoing by either Kavanaugh or the OIC.
While promoting itself as a “non-partisan” watchdog, American Oversight frequently appears explicitly partisan in its choice of investigative projects.
In April 2018, anticipating that Democrats could take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and begin investigations of the Trump administration in January 2019, AO announced a new policy of launching “parallel” investigations that would duplicate and amplify the work of Democratic-controlled committees. This policy was not implemented for investigations conducted by Republican committees that had then been in control of Congress during AO’s entire existence.
As of the end of 2018, at least 11 of American Oversight’s 17 staffers and three of its four board members have known career histories with major left-wing organizations, Democratic Party campaigns, or Democratic officials.
In January 2017, dozens of high-dollar left wing political donors met at a Florida resort to hear about a proposal to produce a “steady stream of open records requests” and lawsuits against Trump, his administration and his family, as the means to generate “anti-Trump media coverage.” The overall strategy was defined as “resist the normalization of Donald Trump” with the ultimate goal to defeat him in 2020 or “through impeachment.”
The creation of new organizations, such as American Oversight, was not suggested in the document. But AO’s agenda bears a striking similarity to what the document proposed, and at least two of AO’s top staff have work histories with two of the main organizations mentioned in the proposal: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and American Bridge 21st Century.
A November 2017 report in the Washington Free Beacon referenced “confidential documents” it had obtained relating to a January 2017 meeting at a “posh resort” with more than 100 “liberal mega-donors” in which Clinton family-aligned operative David Brock proposed an aggressive open records effort to be aimed at the incoming Trump administration.
AO claims to be “the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration,” with more than 1000 open records requests filed in 2018 – an average of four requests made every business day. In addition, it reports 56 lawsuits filed during the year (more than one per week).  The website also provides searchable databases for both the open records documents and the overall investigations to which those documents pertain.  While the Brock briefing document does not propose creation of new organizations, American Oversight emerged within weeks of the alleged January meeting, with a mission very similar to what was proposed in the document.
Senior advisor Melanie Sloan, a former Democratic Congressional aide, co-founded CREW and served as the organization’s executive director until 2014. She is also on the advisory board of Restore Public Trust, another left-wing advocacy organization involved in ethics activities against the Trump administration.
Sarah Studley, AO’s investigative counsel, is a former employee of American Bridge 21st Century, a Brock-associated political committee which conducts opposition research against Republican politicians.
Trump Administration Investigations
American Oversight filed its first open records request on March 1, 2017, seeking employment records from the University of Florida for Alexander Acosta, at that nominee for U.S. Secretary of Labor. On March 13, American Oversight issued a news release announcing its launch as a supposedly “non-partisan ethics organization.”
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker
AO demanded an investigation into whether recently-named acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker had violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that precludes certain government officials from active participation in partisan political campaigns. Earlier in 2018, a campaign account left over from Whitaker’s failed 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate from Iowa had received $8,800 in contributions. As of late 2018, Whitaker had an outstanding debt of $49,187 from the campaign (covered by a personal loan). The four year old account spent almost $472,000 in the failed 2014 effort, while the victorious candidate in the race and her general election rival each spent $12 million. 
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump
AO filed open records requests for personal emails between two members of the Trump family, both of whom are formal advisors to President Trump, and federal employees with whom they are communicating. Aside from speculations regarding “violations of records rules” for using private email accounts, AO does not assert any specific law breaking that may have occurred.
Prohibition on Transgender Military Service
AO filed freedom of information requests seeking the details behind the July 2018 announcement from President Trump that transgender individuals would not be permitted to serve in the military. The President had cited consultations with “my Generals” and military experts as the basis for his change in policy. AO was not citing a law violation by the President, but instead seeking proof the consultation with military officers took place. 
As of the end of 2018 American Oversight claimed to have filed more than 50 public records lawsuits against government agencies, was filing an average of four new public records requests every business day (more than 1000 for the year), and had already published “tens of thousands of documents” from these activities. These investigations appear to have all been directed at the Trump administration, which AO asserts “has been plagued by scandal, misconduct, and conflicts of interest,” or Republicans generally. After nearly two full years in operation, there had been no discernible effort by AO to investigate or file open records requests seeking information regarding misdeeds by Democrats.
Uranium One (Hillary Clinton) Lawsuit
In February 2018 American Oversight sued the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking to “uncover the facts behind Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to reopen an investigation into Uranium One and Hillary Clinton.” AO pursued the matter to find out whether “Sessions’ participation in this matter was consistent with his recusal from all matters related to the 2016 presidential campaign.” AO stipulated this as part of its overall investigation of “the Trump administration’s attempts to politicize the Justice Department.”
In early 2013 Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency, obtained majority ownership of Uranium One, a Canadian uranium mining company with assets in the United States. The deal made the Russian agency one of the world’s largest sources of uranium and – according to a 2015 New York Times report – brought Russian President Vladimir Putin “closer to his goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain.” Because of its mining interests in the U.S., approval for the deal also required oversight from the U.S. Department of State during the period when Hillary Clinton was the U.S. Secretary of State.
During the period of this oversight and in the years leading up to the deal, the chairman of Uranium One made $2.35 million in donations through his family foundation to a Canadian nonprofit affiliated with the Clinton Foundation – donations not disclosed while the U.S. Department of State, then headed by Hillary Clinton, was involved in approval of the sale of uranium. Also during this period, a $500,000 fee for a Moscow speech by former President Bill Clinton was paid by a Russian investment bank with both close relations to the Russian government and a “buy” recommendation on Uranium One stock.
The FBI had begun to investigate Uranium One and other matters regarding the Clinton Foundation in August 2016, during the final months of the Obama administration. Citing a meeting between the U.S. Justice Department and “senior FBI officials,” the New York Times reports they had a concern that following up further at that time “could influence the presidential race and suggest they were favoring Mr. Trump.” A decision was made to “keep the case open but wait until after the election to determine their next steps” – a decision that reportedly “infuriated” some FBI agents who believe “politics” was influencing it.
Parallel Investigations Initiative
In April 2018 American Oversight introduced its Parallel Investigations Initiative. Anticipating the potential for Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019 and a “surge in congressional oversight activity” against the Trump administration that would follow, AO announced its plan to track the investigations that might be launched by Democrats, and then file open records requests for the same information so as to duplicate the public scrutiny applied to the executive branch. “The Trump administration has no idea what’s coming,” begins AO’s announcement of the parallel investigations explicitly intended to be done in tandem with Democratic-controlled congressional committees.
Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Process
During the confirmation hearings regarding future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh taking place during summer and early fall 2018, American Oversight filed several lawsuits, legal motions and freedom of information requests seeking documents regarding Kavanaugh’s previous federal employment within the White House under President George W. Bush, and while working on the investigations of President Clinton by then-independent counsel Ken Starr. AO filed its lawsuits on behalf of six Democratic U.S. Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a group seeking greater transparency from the Supreme Court. The requests and lawsuits were sent to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Office of Independent Counsel, and the National Archives and Records Administration.
One concern was an allegation that Kavanaugh had leaked grand jury secrets to the media while working on the investigation of President Clinton for the Office of Independent Counsel (OIC) Ken Starr.
The report was released shortly thereafter, but made no reference to Kavanaugh and stated the investigation had turned up no evidence of misconduct by the OIC, saying Starr’s team had “rebutted the prima facie showing that it was the source of the disclosures.”
After learning the report it had demanded did not implicate Kavanaugh in wrongdoing by the OIC, and furthermore did not implicate the OIC in wrongdoing either, American Oversight responded by stating the document still did not “exonerate Judge Kavanaugh because it largely addressed a narrow time period when he was not working for the Starr Commission.”
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s Stay at Trump Hotel
In November 2019, the Washington Post reported that Republican governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, had used taxpayer money to stay at President Trump’s D.C. hotel according to documents that American Oversight had obtained. While the Kentucky Republican Party had reimbursed the Kentucky state government two months after the governor’s stay, legal experts suggested that the incident violated a provision in the Constitution that prohibits states from giving the president any form of emolument. 
Campaign Against Corporate Complicity
After the Trump administration, Accountable.US and American Oversight announced Campaign Against Corporate Complicity, calling on American businesses to withdraw business engagements with any former Trump administration officials and to promise to never hire them. In its initial statements, the campaign denounces the administration and its officials for allegedly violating commitments of “diversity, equal justice, and integrity” as well as for endorsing “violent extremism” and “white supremacy.” 
The campaign claims that former president Donald Trump cited “baseless” claims to pressure political allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election and claims his “incendiary” speech incited the riot on the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. It also claims that Trump “enabled” white supremacy, citing his remarks about the 2017 Charlottesville confederate statue protests and despite numerous recorded times where he denounced white supremacy. 
In an open letter to America’s CEOs, the campaign called on American businesses as “the first line of defense against normalizing hate and misconduct” to request that they “vet” former senior-level Trump administration officials to see if they are openly critical enough of Trump’s alleged transgressions against America. The letter claims that this is also necessary because it claims the Trump administration was disgraceful to America and attempted to undo America’s democracy. 
On Feb. 22, 2021, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform sent a letter to the Campaign Against Corporate Complicity requesting documents to fully disclose the reasoning of the Campaign Against Corporate Complicity, stating that it is discriminating against Trump administration officials by mischaracterizing them and that it is making “inaccurate partisan characterizations.”  The letter read as follows:
Mr. Austin Evers Executive Director American Oversight 1030 15th St. NW, Suite B255 Washington, D.C. 20005
Dear Mr. Evers,
We are writing to inquire about your recent joint campaign with Accountable US entitled Campaign Against Corporate Complicity, which seeks to blacklist certain Americans from employment after their public service on behalf of the federal government.  This campaign perpetuates disgraceful discrimination and intends to unjustly punish former federal government employees for carrying out the policy of a duly elected president—tactics that have no place in America.
Though American Oversight claims to be a “non-partisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog”  this campaign focuses solely on blacklisting former federal government officials solely because they worked for the President of the United States. Accountable US and American Oversight are calling on American companies to “make it clear that [they] will not hire for employment, contract for consulting, or seat on [their] boards any senior level official from the Trump administration that has participated in undermining our democracy, endorsing violent extremism, or tearing families apart.”  These inaccurate partisan characterizations of complex policies ignore the intricacies of developing and enforcing laws to ensure American safety—a burden borne by every administration. Additionally, these mischaracterizations discriminate against individuals because they served an administration. They are trying to deny Americans the opportunity to earn livelihoods simply because they made the sacrifice to serve on behalf of the President.
Barring and banning public servants from reentering civil employment has no place in American political discourse. As President Biden said in his inaugural address, “[f]or without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury…unity is the path forward.” The Campaign Against Corporate Complicity does just the opposite of what President Biden encouraged by treating allegedly political opponents as targets to be destroyed. In American Oversight’s campaign, these “political opponents” are public servants with a spectrum of backgrounds, experiences, and views—some are only “guilty” of being Republicans. To deny them future employment only further discourages quality candidates from serving in subsequent administrations.
To better understand the genesis and purpose behind the Campaign Against Corporate Complicity, please produce the following documents and information to the Committee no later than March 8, 2021:
- All documents and communications between American Oversight and Accountable US relating to the creation of the Campaign Against Corporate Complicity;
- All documents and communications relating to the internal process for selecting individuals targeted by the Campaign Against Corporate Complicity;
- All documents and communications used as evidence of wrongdoing against the selected individuals qualifying them for the Campaign Against Corporate Complicity;
- Any and all communications between American Oversight and the Biden-Harris Presidential Transition; and
- Any and all communications between American Oversight and the Biden-Harris Administration.
Additionally, please make arrangements to schedule a briefing on this matter with Committee staff no later than March 1, 2021. To schedule the briefing or ask any follow-up or related questions, please contact Committee on Oversight and Reform Republican staff at (202) 225-5074.
Freedom of Information Act Cases
As of Feb. 25, 2021, American Oversight has issued 158 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cases through the FOIA Project, all of which are targeting the Trump administration.  The FOIA project claims to be a “shaming mechanism” that allows people to hold government officials who break the law accountable. 
The senior leadership staff of American Oversight consists of executive director Austin Evers and senior advisor Melanie Sloan. As of December 2018 there were 17 additional employees listed on the website, many with work histories as left wing activists, campaign staff from the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign, and former Obama administration officials.
Melanie Sloan, AO’s senior advisor, is a former congressional staffer and the founder of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). She previously worked for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), former Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware), and former Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan). She is also on the advisory board of Restore Public Trust.
John Bies is chief counsel. He spent seven years in the U.S. Department of Justice as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel for the Obama administration, where his responsibility was to advise “executive branch officials on FOIA, congressional oversight, executive privilege, ethics, separation of powers, and other constitutional, statutory, and administrative law issues.”
Ty Diringer is AO’s deputy director for outreach and operations and a former staffer from the 2016 Hillary for America campaign.
Clark Pettig is AO’s communications director. He was a press secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Obama administration and a communications staffer for the Obama 2012 reelection campaign.
Cerissa Cafasso is a lawyer for AO. Her prior post was in the Obama administration as counselor to the deputy secretary and counsel to the solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Shine Cho is a researcher for AO. She previously worked for “an opposition research firm supporting progressive campaigns in the 2018 midterm elections.”
Lane Corrigan is a communications associate at AO. She previously interned for the Democratic staff of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and at the Project On Government Oversight.
Board of Directors
American Oversight’s board of directors includes Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society and formerly general counsel for NARAL Pro-Choice America; Kyle Herrig, a director at the New Venture Fund, a major donor to left-wing organizations; and Kathleen Clark, an associate reporter for the American Law Institute.