"Here’s How You Can Use Trump Town" by Derek Kravitz, and Al Shaw + Alex Mierjeski (ProPublica), ProPublica 4/4/2018
We’ve assembled thousands of records of Trump administration appointees. Here’s how you can use them in your stories.
President Donald Trump sits atop a sprawling executive branch, with thousands of hand-picked lieutenants across dozens of agencies who make sure his agenda is pursued and his priorities are followed.
Presidential appointees have historically wielded a significant amount of power, playing dealmaker on Capitol Hill and handling billion-dollar budgets in federal offices.
With all of this hiring going on, it’s important that the public gets a chance to know who these new power players are and what conflicts of interest they may have. Figuring that out can be difficult, requiring painstaking, laborious research and public records sleuthing.
While lobbying and financial information on political appointees is required to be released by law, federal agencies are not allowed to make this information searchable. So we did.
Trump Town is a searchable database of 2,684 Trump administration political appointees, including their jobs and offices, employment history, lobbying records, government ethics documents and financial disclosures. We made the data available and easy to use so journalists and researchers can use it in their work.
See the Database
It is searchable by staffer name, federal agency or former employer. For example, you can find all 375 Trump political appointees within the West Wing and larger White House Office, from Trump’s chief of staff John F. Kelly to the lowest-paid office employees: 24 executive assistants and research analysts.
Since the database launched in March, we’ve added 204 people. We and other news organizations have also found a lot of stories in the datasets we’ve posted online. Here’s a list of stories other news organizations produced using some of those datasets.
We’re devoting this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.” to Trump Town, and how everyone can help find stories in it.
Do you know something about a political appointee or about the work they’re doing? Send us an email at [email protected] or send a Signal message to 347-244-2134.
Interested in using the data in your reporting? Here are some ideas to get you started.
Explore the path from conservative think tanks to the federal government.
We’ve found a large hiring pipeline between the Trump administration and conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation. There are similar links between the administration and Koch Brothers-affiliated political groups. We looked at 35 prominent conservative policy shops in Washington and found that at least 125 Trump political appointees used to work for them.
The Heritage Foundation and the Koch network groups are deeply invested in helping shape Trump policies and their former employees hold top spots in the administration.
Andrew Bremberg started his new job as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, which helps develop, coordinate and execute domestic policy and advise the President, on Inauguration Day. He’d been with Trump before, though, as a policy consultant to the transition team, at the same time advising clients including conservative groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and the Koch nonprofit Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.
It requires an extra step to make Bremberg's connections clear. On his disclosure form, he lists his last job as a manager at Right Policy LLC, a generically named limited liability company. It’s only in the endnote where Bremberg says this was his policy consulting shop: “This is my LLC through which I did policy consulting for the 4 listed clients.”
Others have connections to the Koch network that are easier to detect: Marc Short, assistant to the President and director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, recently served as President of Freedom Partners.
Paul Winfree, who came from the Heritage Foundation to serve the White House as a deputy assistant to the President, among other roles, walked right back through the revolving door. After announcing his resignation last December, Winfree returned to his post at the Heritage Foundation.
We haven’t yet explored all of the political appointees’ influence at the government agencies they now work for, or the policies they’ve helped to shape. We’ve grouped all of the political appointees that we found working on deregulation teams created by the Trump administration. They can be found here.
Special Government Employees
When administration staffers keep their jobs outside the government, it can create conflicts and raise questions about who they really work for.
Special-government employees, or SGEs, are outside experts and consultants who are hired temporarily (some paid, some not) by federal agencies to provide advice and guidance or even to make government policy. SGEs are allowed to keep their jobs in the private sector while working for the government, which can set up conflicts of interest.
Wendy Teramoto, chief of staff to Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross, was initially hired as an SGE while keeping her job as a managing director and partner at Ross’s investment firm W.L. Ross & Co. She’s since resigned from the firm.
SGEs have been allowed since the 1960s, after Kennedy administration agencies argued that the government couldn’t “obtain the expertise it needs if it requires experts to forego their private professional lives as a condition of temporary service.” SGEs are by no means unique to the Trump administration — Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin was for a time an SGE, working for the secretary of state as well as for Teneo, a consulting firm.
At the Department of Transportation, Thomas Martin Fiorentino Jr. was making between $10,512 and $15,800 per month as an SGE in the Immediate Office of the Secretary while he ran his lobbying and consulting firm, the Fiorentino Group. Fiorentino describes himself as one of Florida’s most prolific political fundraisers, as well as “one of the largest fundraisers in the nation” in the last four Presidential elections.
Fiorentino left the Trump administration on May 1, according to Transportation Department officials, but his consultant job was only disclosed last month through a Freedom of Information Act response from the agency. In a statement, the Transportation Department said “consultants do not have decision-making authority, and could not approve actions or sign documents for agency actions.” Read the Department of Transportation's full comment.
We have requested the names, titles and employment information of these government consultants and have included several dozen spread across seven different agencies. You could dig into what these folks do for their day jobs and the conflicts that might present.
Demographic analyses of government staffers could show us if they reflect the taxpayers they serve.
Back in March 2017, Bloomberg used an earlier version of our data to show that just 27 percent of political appointees in the new Trump administration were women. A year later, The Atlantic did a similar analysis, finding the gender breakdown had only improved slightly, to 33 percent. That’s compared to the 2 million-plus federal workforce in the executive branch, which is 43 percent female, and the entire U.S. workforce, in which 47 percent of employees are women.
Similar demographic analyses focusing on age or ethnicity could be done. The goal: to see if the Trump administration reflects the public it serves. You could also background individual employees to estimate ages, using LinkedIn, resumes and other biographical information.
Watch who switches between being a lobbyist for an industry and a regulator keeping watch on that industry.
The Trump administration has been increasingly receptive to industry stakeholders and, in some instances, has tasked former lobbyists to act as the go-betweens between the private and public sectors.
For instance, Dean Heyl, a lobbyist for the International Franchisors Association, a group that served as plaintiff in a nationwide case to block minimum wage and overtime protections for home-care workers, was appointed director of the Office of Public Liaison, within the Department of Labor.
After one meeting with members of Fixed Annuity Consumer Choice, another industry group, Heyl followed up with a phone call to the group’s leadership. The group has been lobbying the federal government to prevent an amendment to the so-called “Fiduciary Rule,” which would potentially create another costly layer of regulation for independent insurance agents.
“Dean was very helpful in orchestrating our meeting. We look at him as a more outgoing facilitator, between the public and the department,” said Dwight Carter, the group’s co-chairman. “I personally look at it as a monumental improvement.”
In the Obama administration’s Labor Department, the Office of Public Liaison was re-branded the Office of Public Engagement and sought to balance its meeting schedule with worker advocates and business interests. But lobbyist and industry connections still existed in the Obama years; Labor’s public engagement office was once run by a former McDonald’s media relations manager, Ofelia Casillas.
The Department of Labor said it has an “open door policy” with all stakeholders. “Mr. Heyl brings deep experience in the public and private sectors to leading the Department’s external engagement activities,” Labor Department spokesman Eric Holland said.
Dig into the shell companies, and see what they do.
One example we found in the “Paradise Papers,” the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ trove of offshore financial and legal records, is Wilbur Ross’ corporate entity, WLR China Energy Associates, Ltd., which is based in the Cayman Islands and connected to his private equity firm.
If you see employers or assets held as LLCs and want to learn more about what they do, run them through corporate registries such as OpenCorporates, the Delaware Secretary of State site search, or property records databases like New York City’s ACRIS.
Check if political appointees’ former employers have federal contracts.
We also made it easy to look for connections between appointees and federal contractors. Use the organizations page to cross reference federal employees’ former employers with the Federal Procurement Data System.
Is a former employee now at an agency where he or she has sway over which companies win contracts? Or flip the equation: If you’re looking into a contractor and wondering about crossover, run the name in Trump Town and see what turns up.
You can use Trump Town to provide context for breaking news related to Trump administration staffers.
On March 12, Trump aide John D. McEntee was fired from his White House job after an undisclosed concern about his finances led to the revocation of his security clearance. The day the story broke you could have used Trump Town to do some digging on McEntee.
In addition to his previous work for the Trump campaign, the 27-year-old lists one other job since he finished college — as a production assistant at Fox News — as well as two bank accounts.
With the pace of developments coming out of this White House, it’s an easy bet that Trump Town will come in handy in a breaking news situation — and soon.
See what ethics waivers have been granted, and what they mean for public policy.
New executive branch appointees are made to sign ethics pledges meant to limit their involvement in issues they’ve lobbied on. But special waivers can help staffers get around those pledges. Take Environmental Protection Agency agricultural adviser Jeffrey Sands.
Sands is a former lobbyist for the agribusiness giant Syngenta, whose flagship herbicide, Atrazine, is used on crops and lawns and has been associated with a variety of reproductive health problems.
Ethics experts told us that Sands’ waiver, which allows him to advise on a “broad range of agricultural interests” at a time when Atrazine is under review at the EPA, is a “major conflict of interest.” Sands’ waiver wasn’t made public until we started asking the EPA about it, and they declined to answer questions about his involvement in the agency’s ongoing review of Atrazine.
Sands is hardly the only Trump administration employee with an ethics waiver. Former associates and partners at the Jones Day law firm — so far we’ve found 15 of them appointed by Trump — enjoy a blanket waiver when they join the administration, allowing them to communicate with their old employer and work on some subjects they had previously handled at Jones Day.
Trump has given out dozens of ethics waivers across the administration, and you can thumb through all of them here.
Find what’s missing, intentionally or not.
It is illegal to make intentionally false or misleading statements or omissions on federal financial disclosure forms. But, in practice, ethics attorneys say many pieces of information, including assets and debts, get left out.
Last year, we found that James E. Cason, a deputy administrator at the Department of the Interior, left off details about a $50,000, five-month contract he had with the Quapaw tribe of Oklahoma. At Interior, Cason oversees tribal lands and was named in a $175 million lawsuit the tribe brought in 2013, stemming from his earlier government work. He also has referenced the Quapaws in government meetings on Capitol Hill, as recently as June.
When we asked Interior officials about Cason's missing financial details, they called it an “oversight” and corrected it.
Why We’re Making This Public
Why doesn’t the federal government make political appointees’ financial disclosures searchable themselves?
It tried, in 2012. But they were stopped by a group of former federal officials in law enforcement, diplomatic and national security positions. The group wrote to congressional leaders, saying a searchable list “will create significant threats to the national security and to the personal safety and financial security of the executive branch officials and their families, especially career employees.”
The letter also called complete personal financial information of all senior officials on the internet a “jackpot for enemies of the United States intent on finding security vulnerabilities they can exploit.”
We’re publishing this information because without it the public would have no meaningful way to scrutinize a powerful and often hidden cadre within the federal bureaucracy. We see Trump Town as a key tool for understanding appointees’ interests and potential conflicts.
It is for this reason — to allow for transparency — that senior executives within the federal government have for decades filled out annual financial disclosure reports under the Ethics in Government Act. And it’s why, for political appointees, these forms are public. Note that we are not publishing details about career civil servants.
Furthermore, federal financial disclosure reports already comply with the Privacy Act, which prohibits an agency from disclosing key personal information that would be valuable to outside actors and third-party groups.