FOIAengine Looks at Opposition Research on the Right
In the shadowy world of political opposition research, sometimes the game looks like Spy vs. Spy. That’s particularly true right now, in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. As more than a dozen Republican hopefuls jockey for position, a raft of newly created research groups with ties to the former Trump Administration have jumped into the fray, blanketing the federal government with thousands of FOIA requests.
Measured by the sheer number of Freedom of Information Act requests and resultant lawsuits, the new research groups are subsuming work once the purview of the well-established Republican oppo machine, America Rising.
As the conservative groups seek documents and other information that can be used to criticize or discredit Democratic opponents, a second wave of FOIA requests sometimes follows – often from Democratic operatives who are, in essence, spying on the Republicans by replicating their FOIA requests. By tracking all those FOIA requests in as close to real-time as their availability allows, PoliScio Analytics’ competitive-intelligence database FOIAengine offers a window into each side’s tradecraft.
Last week, we examined how the Democratic National Committee uses FOIA in its opposition research. This week, we’re taking a look at the Republicans. Regardless of the party, opposition research – “oppo” in the vernacular of politicians – is a basic building block in every political campaign. The higher the stakes, the deeper the research. And many more players are in the opposition-research game now, following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
The Court’s 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United opened the door to unlimited election spending by so-called independent political action committees, aka super PACs. Super PACs spend big on negative ads, and oppo is their ammo. According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks the flow of money in politics, spending in the 2020 presidential and congressional races totaled $14.4 billion, more than double the total cost of the record-breaking 2016 presidential election cycle. (Disclosure: I am a longtime board member of OpenSecrets). That huge influx of money led to more negative campaign advertisements across all media, which in turn juiced the need for more opposition research.
Political non-profits and PACs generally are required to file reports with the Internal Revenue Service or the Federal Elections Commission, or both. But many FOIA-active right-leaning research organizations are either too new to have public filings available, or aren’t registered at all. So it’s unclear which candidates, if any, they might be working for – or how they get their funding.
A new group called Protect the Public’s Trust shows up in FOIAengine more than any other Republican-centric research group. Its founder, Michael Chamberlain, calls himself a “concerned citizen” and denies that Protect the Public’s Trust has a Republican bias. “We’re targeting people in the executive branch,” he told Politico in May 2021. “So that’s the Biden Administration right now.”
According to Chamberlain’s LinkedIn profile, he worked 20 years in the roofing business in Nevada, then opened a boutique political consultancy in that state before signing on in August 2016 as the Nevada communications director for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
When Trump entered the White House, Chamberlain became a special assistant for rural outreach at the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos. Chamberlain’s LinkedIn profile says he exited the department when Trump left the White House. By April 2021, Chamberlain had his website up, listing a Capitol Hill address that, according to the Huffington Post, is a storefront that’s home to Gold Spot Pack and Ship – a shipping, office supply, and check-cashing business. The group has variously called itself a “501(c)(3)” and a “non-profit,” but later dropped both descriptions. There’s nothing in the IRS or FEC public records about Protect the Public’s Trust, and Chamberlain didn’t respond to our questions about his group’s source of funds.
But there is no doubting one thing: Chamberlain is making waves. The group got the attention of the White House press office last year when it criticized then-press secretary Jen Psaki over a potential conflict of interest. Earlier this year, its research played a role in three House committee hearings.
A month after Protect the Public’s Trust set up its website, the first of 296 (as of this writing) FOIA requests started rolling in. And in October 2021, Protect the Public’s Trust filed the first of at least 56 FOIA lawsuits to date. According to Docket Alarm, Dhillon Law Group is counsel in 51 of those cases. The law firm’s managing partner, Harmeet Dhillon, is the former vice chair of the California Republican Party who earlier this year unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Ronna McDaniel as chairperson of the Republican National Committee.
A recent FOIA request from Protect the Public’s Trust sought records relating to the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to regulate nicotine vaping products. The April 19, 2023 request asked for communications between various “special interest groups, also referred to as patient and consumer advocacy groups” – including the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease – and a list of FDA Center for Tobacco Products officials. Of interest were “proposed tobacco user fee[s]” for vaping products. (Although the FDA regulates vaping products, current law doesn’t allow the agency to assess such fees that it levies on other tobacco products.) After the FDA failed to provide the documents within the statutory time frame, citing overwork, Chamberlain’s group followed its typical path. Not waiting, the group filed a FOIA lawsuit against the FDA on August 16.
Behind Protect the Public’s Trust in terms of FOIAengine requests among conservative research groups are two other newcomers: Americans for Public Trust, with 163 FOIA requests and three FOIA lawsuits since its 2020 founding, and the Functional Government Initiative, with 138 FOIA requests and 38 FOIA lawsuits in the past 14 months.
Americans for Public Trust was founded in January 2020 by Caitlin Sutherland, who previously worked as the research director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The group, which didn’t reply to our request to disclose its funding, calls itself nonpartisan and non-profit, and says its mission is to uncover corrupt and unethical behavior in government through original research: “Our in-depth, fearless investigations are the first step in shedding light on wrongdoing.” IRS filings for its first two years, 2020 and 2021, list $5.1 million in revenue. The most recent FOIAengine entry for this group is a July 10 request to the FDA for “emails, communications, correspondence and/or Outlook calendar invites” between former Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Wolensky and Anthony Fauci.
The Functional Government Initiative’s founder is Chris Stanley, who was chief of the Census Bureau’s congressional relations office during the Trump Administration, and, before that, the legislative director for Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). In its most recent FOIA lawsuit, against the FDA, the group calls itself an “unincorporated association of individuals dedicated to improving the American public’s access to information about the officials, decisions, actions, and priorities of their government.” Stanley didn’t respond to questions sent to him via LinkedIn about his group’s sources of funding.
Coming in behind the newcomers, with 90 recent FOIA requests logged in FOIAengine, is America Rising, the Republicans’ top research arm and a mainstay of conservative oppo research since its founding 2013. In addition to its eponymous super PAC, the group has a for-profit corporation, also called America Rising, which records and investigates Democratic officeholders and candidates and provides that opposition research to paying candidates and other clients.
America Rising also has a Spy vs. Spy alter ego in Due Diligence Group, a Democratic-aligned opposition research group that often follows up on America Rising’s FOIA requests by seeking exactly the same information. Due Diligence Group has a skeletal website, and there’s no trace of it in the FEC or IRS databases.
For America Rising, the oppo game has paid off. According to the FEC’s most recently available data, during the first half of 2023 America Rising received at least $3.2 million from a diverse array of Republican groups, including $750,000 from the national Republican senatorial and congressional campaign committees.
Soon after its founding, America Rising explained its mission this way: “By cataloguing every Democrat utterance, we have the data to ensure they are held accountable for their words and actions.”
Next: The latest hedge-fund requests to the FDA.
John A. Jenkins, co-creator of FOIAengine, is a Washington journalist and publisher whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and elsewhere. He is a four-time recipient of the American Bar Association’s Gavel Award Certificate of Merit for his legal reporting and analysis. His most recent book is The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist. Jenkins founded Law Street Media in 2013. Prior to that, he was President of CQ Press, the textbook and reference publishing enterprise of Congressional Quarterly. FOIAengine is a product of PoliScio Analytics (PoliScio.com), a new venture specializing in U.S. political and governmental research, co-founded by Jenkins and Washington lawyer Randy Miller. Learn more about FOIAengine here. To review FOIA requests mentioned in this article, subscribe to FOIAengine.
Write to John A. Jenkins at JAJ@PoliScio.com.