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Watchdog group, citing “integrity of civil service,” sues Trump to find out if feds are being bullied

Office of Personnel Management, entrance (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A watchdog group led by former Obama administration lawyers filed lawsuits Thursday against three federal agencies to force them to release communications the group suspects show the Trump administration is bullying civil servants.

The complaints, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, contend that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Energy Department are violating the law by refusing to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information Act for communications about career employees between top White House political aides and their counterparts at the agencies. The group also is appealing a State Department decision on a similar request for information.

The court actions — one of dozens of legal challenges the administration is facing on its immigration policies and conflicts related to President Trump’s business holdings, was filed by United to Protect Democracy, which formed in February.

One of the group’s top missions is to protect civil servants — whose jobs are by definition not political — from what it says are early, troubling signs of intimidation by the administration, particularly of scientists, attorneys and policy experts who may be being reassigned or fired because of a perception that they oppose the White House’s agenda.

“What we’re looking for is: Are civil servants being bullied or intimidated?” said Ben Berwick, a former Justice Department lawyer with Protect Democracy who filed the complaints. “Are they being hired or fired or reassigned because of their perceived political views?”

The group says it does not have evidence of improper action — yet. In February, it filed a FOIA request with the Energy Department for communications among Trump transition officials –and current political appointees — about the questionnaire the new team sent to the agency seeking names of employees who work on climate change issues. (The outgoing Obama administration team did not hand the names over).

The White House and spokespeople for HHS and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment. An Energy spokesperson said the agency could not comment on pending legislation.

The request also seeks emails and other communications that might disclose “personnel changes” and any “new personnel assignments” that may have arisen from the questionnaire.

At HHS, Protect Democracy is seeking similar communications from the transition team or current political appointees about employees who work on the Affordable Care Act and abortion or birth-control policy — and any corresponding personnel changes.

And after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that hundreds of State Department employees who had signed a dissent cable opposing the Trump administration’s travel ban on majority-Muslim nations should “either get with the program or go,” Protect Democracy sought communications among political aides about those employees too.

“What we’ve seen from the administration has people understandably nervous, so we want to get the facts,” Berwick said. “If [Spicer] is saying publicly that dissenters should quit, what are they saying and doing behind closed doors?”

The State Department informed the group that it would charge  “potentially exorbitant fees” to fulfill the information request, the complaint filed Thursday says. It appeals that ruling, arguing that the law requires fees to be waived if the request is in the public interest — which the plaintiffs claim it is.

FOIA laws require an agency  to respond within 20 business days whether it intends to comply with the request. The lawsuit says the group has not received a response — and wants a judge to compel the administration to provide the records.

Protect Democracy says it is also tracking any political interference by the administration in government functions that should be independent, as well as  efforts to spread “misinformation.”

The group has filed almost 100 additional FOIA requests with federal agencies it says could prove its concerns are true.

These include contacts between White House political staff and antitrust enforcement offices at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission as well as the legal justification for the military’s recent strike in Syria. Also requested are communications between the Office of Management and Budget and HHS related to budget director Mick Mulvaney’s comments on the Congressional Budget Office, which released a report concluding that a proposed bill in Congress to repeal the ACA would leave millions of Americans uninsured.