Written by Tom Fitton
With a struggling economy and government debt piling up, President Obama promised to look at the budget line by line. Well, I’ve got a few lines he can examine. How about starting with the taxpayer funded personal junkets taken by Obama administration officials (including the First Family)?
Last week, you’ll recall I told you Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit to get hold of the records detailing the costs of President Obama’s February 2013 “boys’ weekend” in Palm Beach, Florida, as well as the simultaneous vacations of Michelle Obama and Joseph Biden in Aspen, Colorado. (Our previous discoveries regarding the First Family’s vacations can be found here.)
This week JW placed Attorney General Eric Holder’s personal travel under the microscope, by releasing documents from the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealing that between March 27, 2009, and August 24, 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder accrued $4,263,704.01 in total travel expenses. This included $697,525.20 in taxpayer-funded personal travel expenses. (We got these records in June in response to an August 2012 Freedom of Information Act request).
Altogether, Holder took 213 out-of-Washington trips during the 42 months for which we obtained records. His 31 personal trips during the time period included two trips to Martha’s Vineyard with a flight-only price tag of $95,184.50, as well as eight trips to Farmingdale, New York, at a flight cost of $118,553.71.
On September 9, 2010, Holder took a one-day personal jaunt to gambling mecca Atlantic City that cost the taxpayers $7,408 in flight expenses alone. (Wasn’t it President Obama who once cautioned American taxpayers that when “times are tough” the American people should “tighten their belts” instead of that “blowing a bunch of cash” on Vegas ?)
Holder’s first taxpayer-funded trip noted in the documents was to an April 2009 “US/Mexico Arms Trafficking Strategy Meeting” (government cost “unavailable”) concerning gun-running between the US and Mexico, an issue in which the attorney general subsequently said he had no involvement. Among other controversial Holder travel expenditures:
In April, 2011, Holder charged taxpayers $15,452.50 for a speaking engagement at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in New York City.
In June, 2012, Holder charged $38,108.18 in “business and personal” expenses to address LULAC, a liberal group that strongly supports amnesty for illegal aliens, in Orlando and New Orleans.
In July, 2012, Holder charged an additional $38,108.18, this time fully billed to the taxpayers, to speak before La Raza, another controversial pro-amnesty group, in Las Vegas.
Also in July, 2012, Holder flew on a Department of Defense plane, at unknown cost, to speak before the NAACP convention in Houston.
The documents we obtained also include Holder’s personal expense form reports for room service and lodging.
Now, to be fair, by long-standing presidential executive fiat, attorney general Holder is a “required use” official who must take government aircraft for all travel while in office due to “security and communications needs,” according to a February 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. The requirement dates most recently from 2004.
However, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, “For personal trips, Holder is required to reimburse the government for the equivalent commercial coach fare, which is often much less than the total trip costs according to the GAO.”
Here’s the thing. Holder doesn’t fly commercial. He usually flies on a Gulfstream V, the same private luxury jet owned by former Apple chairman Steve Jobs and billionaire businessman Mark Cuban. So no wonder the numbers do not square in favor of the taxpayer.
Now, as you might expect, JW’s records resulted in quite a bit of press interest. And on Tuesday night, I appeared on the Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” program with guest host Laura Ingraham to discuss these luxury trips. (You can watch the segment here.)
In my interview with Ingraham, I noted the tone deafness of the Obama administration when it comes to these luxury vacations: “[Holder’s] personal trips cost $700,000 or so. He should be more sensitive to the costs his personal junkets are costing the American people…Our debt is out of control and they should cut these costs back.”
And then there is also the question of all of those alleged “official trips.” Take a look at the list above and note the timing of Holder’s speeches, and the groups involved. Some of these 2012 trips were for speeches to leftist groups essential to the president’s reelection campaign. And, as I said on Fox News, if someone wants to call these specific trips “official business,” then I have a bridge to sell them.
(Of course, the Obama administration has so blurred the lines between official government business and Obama campaign business that it’s difficult to know where one leaves off and the other begins. This is not an excuse for wrongdoing. It’s just an observation on the DC shell game.)
We should hope these documents help Attorney General Holder understand the burden his unnecessary personal travel places on American taxpayers. The notion that federal officials such as Holder have access to a fleet of luxury jets for discounted personal travel for “security” reasons should strike most Americans as a scam that needs to be reformed. (And, in case you’re wondering, we criticize Republicans for similar travel abuse. See this 2008 McClatchy news story, entitled “Attorney general’s private trips have cost taxpayers.”)
In the meantime, JW will continue to do what it can to bring the light of day the costs associated with these luxury vacations, hoping that public scrutiny might lead to some necessary changes.
I’ve said this before in this space many times. Illegal alien sanctuary policies are deadly and dangerous. And right now, Judicial Watch is locked in a battle against the City of Los Angeles to put an end to a sanctuary policy that places the citizens of California at great risk.
In fact, on Monday, we will be in court on behalf of our taxpayer client, Harold Sturgeon, in a lawsuit that has been consolidated with another filed by the Los Angeles Police Protection League (the police union). The ACLU, on behalf of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants’ Rights of Los Angeles and LA Voice, has intervened to defend the LAPD policy.
You can read Judicial Watch’s Court documents here. But let’s quickly review the facts.
In 1994, the California Legislature enacted changes to the California Vehicle Code that required police officers, under certain circumstances to impound the vehicles of unlicensed drivers for 30 days. And here’s why:
At the time, an estimated 1,000,000 individuals were driving in California without a license, and an additional 720,000 were driving on suspended or revoked licenses.
More than 20% of drivers involved in fatal accidents were unlicensed drivers.
A driver with a suspended license was four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than a properly licensed driver.
So this was a problem of “critical interest,” as the Legislature noted – one that was endangering the lives of the citizens of California. California legislators felt compelled to act, and act they did, implementing changes to the California Vehicle Code that stood unchallenged for 18 years.
That’s when Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and the Board of Police Commissioners decided to put the interests of illegal aliens – who comprise “the vast majority of unlicensed drivers” – ahead of the citizens of California by enacting Special Order 7, put into effect in April 2012.
As reported by the Los Angeles Daily News, Special Order 7 requires that “vehicles of unlicensed drivers will only be impounded for a day, if that person has insurance, valid identification, has not caused an accident and has not been cited previously for unlicensed driving. An exception may be made in some cases if a licensed driver is immediately available to drive the vehicle away.”
What possible sense does this make so far as the safety and well-being of the citizens of California are concerned? Not a bit. Nonetheless, Special Order 7 has accomplished its objective. The number of cars impounded dropped from 28,796 in 2011 to 16,242 in 2012. So one can surmise that thousands of unlicensed drivers have been allowed back on the roads during this policy, likely leading to more accidents and more deaths.
That’s why we’re in court. Now, let’s get to the legal arguments.
As Judicial Watch noted in its original complaint, according to the California Constitution and California Vehicle Code § 21, “a local government has no authority to regulate or control any matter covered by the California Vehicle Code unless such authority is expressly granted by the State of California….Because the provisions of Special Order 7 are not within the purview of any express authorization granted by the State of California Defendants…were without authority to enact Special Order 7…”
So, in other words, Special Order 7 was not only reckless and dangerous, but also unlawful from the start.
This argument seemed to find some favor in the Superior Court for the State of California, where the case now resides. On January 17, 2013, Superior Court Judge Terry Green refused to dismiss the lawsuit, indicating that he required additional information. The judge also suggested the policy might violate state codes, which Judicial Watch has argued in its court filings.
In the end, with the Motion for Summary Judgment, which will be filed with the court on Monday, our client “seeks to enjoin any further expenditure of taxpayer funds or taxpayer-financed resources to implement, enforce, maintain, or otherwise carry out the provisions of Special Order 7.” Our client further “seeks a judgment declaring that Special Order 7 is unlawful and void,” as it violates both the Vehicle Code and the California Constitution.
These are strange times indeed, when the people at the top of the nation’s third largest police department are flagrantly acting outside the bounds of law, placing the very citizens they pledge to serve and protect at risk. And for what purpose? To throw a bone to the radical illegal immigration crowd.
These types of policies must not continue. Stay tuned…
On a number of occasions I’ve noted that the Obama administration has taken a schizophrenic approach to the raid that led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.
On the one hand, the administration refuses to release the bin Laden death photos and the details of the reportedly honorific burial the terrorist mastermind received at sea. Why? Because the information might harm our nation’s security by getting al Qaeda terrorists upset.
On the other hand, administration officials have improperly leaked information to two Hollywood filmmakers behind the film Zero Dark Thirty because the film was initially timed to boost President Obama’s reelection.
As exposed by liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd:
The White House is also counting on the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal big-screen version of the killing of Bin Laden to counter Obama’s growing reputation as ineffectual. The Sony film by the Oscar-winning pair who made ‘The Hurt Locker’ will no doubt reflect the president’s cool, gutsy decision against shaky odds. Just as Obamaland was hoping, the movie is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, 2012 — perfectly timed to give a home-stretch boost to a campaign that has grown tougher.
So when Judicial Watch later learned specifically that CIA Director Leon Panetta let loose some secrets at an awards ceremony with Zero Dark Thirty filmmaker Mark Boal in the room (and not properly credentialed), we knew records detailing the event would not be easy to obtain.
We were right. And now we’ve been forced, once again, to go to court to get them.
On June 21, 2013, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the CIA seeking access to records identifying attendees at the June 24, 2011, awards ceremony for individuals involved in the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden. The lawsuit also seeks all records of communications from CIA employees regarding the attendance of Mark Boal at the event.
Specifically, here’s what we’re after pursuant to our original December 19, 2012, FOIA request:
Any and all guest lists or other records identifying individuals who attended and/or were invited to attend the June 24, 2011 awards ceremony at CIA Headquarters for individuals involved in the search for, and killing of, Osama bin Laden
Any and all records of communication between any official, employee, or representative of the Central Intelligence Agency and any other party regarding the attendance of Mr. Mark Boal at the aforementioned awards ceremony.
By letter dated December 27, 2012, the CIA acknowledged receiving our request on December 19, 2012. The letter stated that it was unlikely the CIA could respond to the request within 20 working days as required by law, blithely adding, “You have the right to consider our honest appraisal as a denial of your request and you may appeal to the Agency Release Panel.”
Here’s the issue. Because the statement was not technically an “adverse determination” within the meaning of the law, no administrative appeal was possible. Therefore Judicial Watch had to file its June 21, 2013 FOIA lawsuit.
On June 5, 2013 Politico summed up the concerns regarding Panetta’s disclosures during the event:
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta revealed the name of the Navy SEAL unit that carried out the Osama bin Laden raid and named the unit’s ground commander at a 2011 ceremony attended by “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker Mark Boal.
Panetta also discussed classified information designated as “top secret” and “secret” during his presentation at the awards ceremony, according to a draft Pentagon inspector general’s report published Wednesday by the Project on Government Oversight.
Now, according to a CIA news release, the purpose of the ceremony was to honor “the dedication and commitment of CIA officers, military service members, and Intelligence Community partners for their work on the historic operation that concluded the hunt for Usama Bin Ladin.” But the guest list also included filmmaker Boal, who had been invited to attend what Fox News reported as “a speech classified as secret to a group of CIA attendees.”
During the speech, according to the draft Pentagon inspector general’s report, “Director Panetta specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name.” The draft report added, “Director Panetta also provided DoD information, identified by relevant Original Classification Authorities as TOP SECRET….”
Curiously, the final inspector general’s report omitted any reference to Panetta’s speech, a Pentagon spokesperson saying the matter had been referred to the CIA IG.
So what was Leon Panetta’s defense for his loose lips? “The CIA isn’t corrupt, it’s incompetent!”
A source close to Panetta said that he was unaware anyone without the proper security clearances was present at the event, which included both CIA and military personnel.
“He has no idea who all is in the audience. He was told everyone got the requisite clearances,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
Whether Leon Panetta was personally aware of Boal’s presence is an open question. (Reason number one why we need the records.) But what cannot be denied is that the Obama administration has knowingly provided classified details to the filmmakers while hiding behind a bogus “national security” argument regarding the photos and burial records.
For example, in August 2012 – after having repeatedly been told by the Obama administration that nothing inappropriate had been leaked – Judicial Watch obtained “overlooked” documents from the CIA and the Department of Defense (DOD) through a FOIA lawsuit regarding meetings and communications between government agencies, Boal, and film director Kathryn Bigelow, in which the filmmakers were apparently provided classified details about the bin Laden assault.
The documents, which the CIA and DOD held back for eight months, revealed that the Obama administration sought to have “high visibility” into bin Laden-related projects, and granted Boal and Bigelow unusual access to agency information in preparation for their film.
In a June 15, 2011, email to Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Benjamin Rhodes, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson noted that “Boal has been working with us and with the CIA (via George Little) for initial context briefings – at DoD this has been provided by Mike Vickers, and at CIA by relevant officials with the full knowledge and full approval/support of Director Panetta.”
Just one month after the Judicial Watch FOIA lawsuit revelations, the Pentagon Inspector General made a criminal referral to the Holder Department of Justice (DOJ) implicating Undersecretary of Defense Michael Vickers in the improper release of classified information. Obama administration officials later disclosed in sworn court documents related to the Judicial Watch lawsuit that the sensitive information released to Bigelow and Boal could cause an “unnecessary security and counterintelligence risk” if released to the public. To date, the Holder DOJ has failed to file any charges against those responsible for the leaks.
Panetta’s disclosures at the CIA ceremony with Mark Boal present, along with the leaks revealed in the earlier documents obtained by Judicial Watch, provide conclusive backing to the serious charge that the Obama administration has played fast and loose with national security information in order to help Hollywood filmmakers make a pro-Obama film.
Until next week...
Tom Fitton, President Judicial Watch, Inc., a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law. Through its educational endeavors, Judicial Watch advocates high standards of ethics and morality in our nation's public life and seeks to ensure that political and judicial officials do not abuse the powers entrusted to them by the American people. Judicial Watch fulfills its educational mission through litigation, investigations, and public outreach.