Empower Oversight Whistleblowers & Research (Empower Oversight) launched one year ago this week, on July 2, 2021, as a new nonprofit educational organization dedicated to holding big government and big business accountable and helping whistleblowers report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct. Here are some of the highlights of Empower Oversight’s accomplishments in our first year.
1. Exposing Cryptocurrency Conflicts at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
Since last August, Empower Oversight has pressed the SEC through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for evidence of alleged conflicts of interest by senior officials, including William Hinman. The controversy arose following the SEC’s selective enforcement decisions on cryptocurrencies, raising suspicions about its failure to develop clear, consistent regulation of the new industry. The SEC failed to properly respond to our FOIA request, which forced us to file a lawsuit against the agency; the lawsuit is still pending. However, we obtained documents from the SEC that tend to confirm some of the allegations of conflicts of interest by senior SEC officials that may have contributed to the agency’s decisions and benefited some cryptocurrencies, such as Ether, over others. We also sent a referral to the SEC Inspector General outlining the issues and seeking a review of how the SEC’s ethics officials handled the matter.
2. The COVID-19 Origins Investigative Timeline
With more than one million Americans dead as a result of the worldwide pandemic, investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus ought to be an important, bipartisan priority on Capitol Hill. In an effort to educate and encourage lawmakers and the public to more closely examine how the pandemic began, Empower Oversight developed and published a COVID-19 Origins Timeline and sought crowdsourced edits from researchers through social media. It was first released in August 2021 and updated periodically, with its most recent iteration released in June of this year. The timeline has been shared with Congress to serve as a reference and resource for Members and staff interested in probing the origins of COVID-19 and the government’s response to the pandemic.
3. COVID-19 Genetic Sequence Deletion FOIA Lawsuit
China has not transparently shared with the world information that could help uncover the origins of COVID-19. Following questions from Capitol Hill and news articles about the controversy, Empower Oversight filed a FOIA request with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) seeking records that will shed light on its deletion of coronavirus genetic sequences from its publicly available database at the request of Chinese researchers. After NIH’s failure to respond to the FOIA request, we sued the NIH, obtained some of the requested documents, and published a research document summarizing the evidence from those records. The lawsuit against the NIH is still pending.
4. Conflicts of Interest at the Veterans Administration (VA)
Whistleblowers reported to Empower Oversight and the office of Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that a senior VA official, Charmain Bogue, had failed to recuse herself from official actions involving her husband, Barrett Bogue, and his employers. As a result, we sought records from the VA through FOIA that would shed light on the alleged conflicts of interest and potential insider trading surrounding a VA announcement sought by Mr. Bogue’s employer. We published a research paper addressing the alleged conflicts of interest and potential insider trading. Additionally, we recently sued the VA to compel it to comply with our FOIA request and reveal answers it drafted, but never sent, to Senator Grassley’s questions about the conflict and related issues. The answers were improperly redacted in copies provided to us pursuant to FOIA. The VA Inspector General eventually opened an inquiry and substantiated many of the whistleblower’s most significant allegations.
5. Inspector General Accountability at the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)
Empower Oversight filed FOIA requests with the FHFA and other agencies to uncover the reasons for a multi-year delay of accountability for misconduct and whistleblower retaliation at the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). Although the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) must complete investigations of OIG misconduct within 180 days or explain the reasons for the delay, it took CIGIE approximately five years to provide its report to the President on the FHFA-OIG. Empower Oversight filed eight FOIA requests with various agencies probing the extensive and unacceptable delay. We won our appeal of an initial denial by CIGIE, and thus, were able to uncover key reports to Congress detailing the timeline of inaction by the authorities who are supposed to hold inspectors general accountable. In addition, the Biden Administration failed to act in response to CIGIE’s report. Eventually, the FHFA Inspector General resigned “amid pressure” over the report, and Empower Oversight organized a joint letter to President Biden from whistleblower groups across the ideological spectrum on the issue.
6. Preserving FBI whistleblower protections in the Intelligence Authorization Act
In September 2021, Empower Oversight led a coalition of whistleblower groups urging FBI whistleblower protections be clarified within the Intelligence Authorization Act that was being debated in the U.S. Senate at the time. The protections were clarified in the final version of the bill, and Senator Chuck Grassley thanked Empower Oversight in the Congressional Record for our contributions to the legislation.
7. Potential Conflicts and the Hiring of a Prominent Critic of Special Counsel Durham
Empower Oversight filed FOIA requests with the Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding its hiring of Susan Hennessey, a vocal social media critic of the probe by Special Counsel John Durham, to a post within the DOJ’s National Security Division. For Hennessey, a Brookings Institution employee, to have any official duties related to the Durham probe would raise conflict of interest questions, given the Durham investigation’s focus on the role of Brookings’ employees in the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. After the DOJ failed to respond fully and timely to our request, we filed a lawsuit to compel it to produce documents related to the hiring of Hennessey and budget information about the funding levels for Special Counsel Durham’s probe. The lawsuit is pending.
If you have first-hand information you’d like to disclose to assist Empower Oversight with these inquiries, please contact us confidentially here.