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Democrats sue GSA over access to Trump hotel records

View of chandelier and multistory U.S. flag in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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A group of House Democrats are suing the head of the General Services Administration for access to documents related to President Trump’s D.C. hotel, the project Trump’s company leases from the agency.

On Thursday, 17 Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, frustrated at the GSA’s repeated unwillingness to provide documents related to the hotel, filed suit in federal court against the agency’s acting administrator, Timothy O. Horne, whom Trump chose after entering the White House.

At issue are documents that the Democrats say the administration is required by law to provide. Specifically, they seek monthly financial reports the hotel is required to file with the GSA, records of payments from the hotel’s foreign clients and details on how the agency decided to allow Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, to retain the deal after he became president.

“This hotel is not just a building with Donald Trump’s name on it,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the Democrats’ ranking member on the committee, said in a statement. “It is a glaring symbol of the Trump Administration’s lack of accountability and a daily reminder of the refusal by Republicans in Congress to do their job. This may be standard operating procedure in foreign countries — but not here. Not in America.”

A spokesman for the GSA said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

In 2013, Trump signed a 60-year lease to open the hotel in the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is owned by the federal government and managed by the GSA. The company pays the government $3 million in base rent and a share of profits beyond a certain threshold. Cummings and other Democrats have been raising concerns about Trump’s hotel deal since he began rising in the polls before Election Day.

When Trump won the election, many legal and contracting experts expected that the lease would be voided because of a clause in the agreement barring any “elected official of the government of the United States” from deriving “any benefit” from the deal. Trump and his daughter Ivanka, a senior White House adviser, both retained their stakes in the property.

In-depth: How the Trump hotel changed Washington’s culture of influence

However, officials during the waning months of the Obama administration, led by then-GSA administrator Denise Turner Roth, took no action. After Trump entered office, the project’s contracting manager wrote to Eric Trump, the president’s son now overseeing the hotel, to say the project was in “full compliance” because Trump would not be able to access the proceeds of the project until he left office.

Many government ethics experts found the decision untenable, particularly because the hotel does business with lobbying groups and foreign governments.

While Obama was in office, the GSA provided monthly financial documents showing that the hotel was losing money. Since Trump took over, the GSA has stopped releasing the reports despite repeated requests from Democrats, except for when the agency accidentally posted three months’ worth of data online. Those reports showed that during the first four months of 2017, the hotel made $1.97 million in profits by charging among the highest room rates in the city.

After written requests for the information failed, the Democrats invoked what is known as the “seven-member rule,” which requires agencies to “submit any information requested of it relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the committee” when requested by seven members of the oversight committee. Democrats and Republicans have invoked the rule in previous years.

However, in July, P. Brennan Hart III, a former Trump campaign staffer and GSA associate administrator, sent Cummings an opinion from White House attorneys arguing that “individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have the authority to conduct oversight” in the absence of support from a full committee or subcommittee.

Cummings said in a statement that the opinion amounted to “the President defying a federal statute” and “denying our ability as members of Congress to fulfill our constitutional duty to act as a check on the executive branch.”

The Democrats are seeking what is known as declaratory relief.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz