Lawsuit challenges secrecy of White House advisers on infrastructure

  • Kate Kelly and Julie Hirschfeld Davis
  • The New York Times
9:00 a.m. Wednesday, July 26, 2017 Nation & World
AL DRAGO/NYT
President Donald Trump and Elaine Chao, Transportation Secretary during a roundtable at the Department of Transportation in Washington, June 9, 2017. New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo will make a rare trip to Washington on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, to meet with Democratic members of the New York congressional delegation and Chao as New York City suffers through an ongoing transit crisis.

A nonprofit group filed suit against President Donald Trump on Tuesday, claiming that he illegally convened an advisory council to develop a plan to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure without the required public disclosures.  

The lawsuit by Food and Water Watch, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, also names Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation and Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce. It charges that the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a law that mandates public notice of an advisory panel’s members and meetings, has been skirted by the administration.  

Days before his inauguration, the president announced that he was naming real estate developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth to lead the infrastructure group. He has since added two people from the world of private equity, Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, and William E. Ford, the chief executive of General Atlantic. But while Trump has solicited policy advice from the infrastructure council, the group was not formally established by the White House until last week.  

The Trump administration has been widely criticized for trying to circumvent the norms of disclosure and transparency to shield its inner workings from public view. Trump decided earlier this year to stop releasing visitor logs to the White House. He has banned cameras from news briefings in recent weeks, although his new communications director has said that will soon change. And Trump has broken with decades of precedent in refusing to release his income tax returns.  

The Food and Water Watch suit claims that the Trump administration “has adopted a pattern and practice of establishing advisory committees, largely populated by President Trump’s business associates and friends, to advise him and agency secretaries on economic and business-related matters.”  

“This practice, in effect outsourcing policymaking to private individuals who are unfettered by conflict-of-interest rules and other public accountability standards, has raised a host of ethical and transparency concerns,” it added.  

Natalie Strom, a White House spokeswoman said: “While we have no comment on any specific litigation regarding the president’s advisory council on infrastructure, the White House ensures that all advisory groups are fully compliant with any and all applicable federal rules and regulations.”  

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit this month, accusing the commission on election integrity established by Trump did not comply with the Advisory Committee Act, the same issue raised in the Food and Water Watch complaint. In response, the White House created a public website for the commission, disclosed its introductory email and the agenda of a conference call its members held and also posted public comments, many of which criticized harshly its mission and leaders.  

Trump is not the first president to try to shield his administration’s policy deliberations from public attention. Former President Bill Clinton faced a lawsuit in 1993 over his health care task force, a panel that was led by his wife, Hillary Clinton. That suit said it should be subject to the advisory committee law, which has an exemption only for entities made entirely of full-time members of the administration.  

But some experts believe the Trump administration has gone further than its predecessors in flouting the rules.  

“What we’re seeing here is almost a wholesale avoidance of the Advisory Committee Act by the Trump administration, and that is dangerous, because it allows this basically shadow government to form,” said Lawrence M. Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group.  

Whatever its outcome in court, the lawsuits raise uncomfortable questions about Trump’s heavy reliance on business executives for policy input in closed-door meetings. During the first hundred days of his administration alone, nearly 300 private-sector leaders visited the White House, and many agreed to join advisory panels on topics ranging from manufacturing to job creation.  

Some of those advisers are wielding substantial influence. Stephen A. Schwarzman, the private equity executive, for example, is chairman of a business advisory council made up of more than a dozen chief executives that helped convince the president to soften his stance on young immigrants living in the country illegally.

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