Press Releases

Watchdog Adds Three to Ethics Waiver Tracker

Number of EPA waivers already exceeds the quantity reportedly granted during the previous administration

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust added three more Executive Branch employees to the federal watchdog’s Ethics Waiver Tracker. Two political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and one at the Department of the Interior (DOI) were granted waivers allowing them to participate in matters involving their former employers that either federal ethics laws or the Biden Ethics Pledge would otherwise have barred them from participating.

Martha Williams, Principal Deputy Director at the DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) received a waiver to the Biden Ethics Pledge concerning her former employer immediately prior to joining the Department, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a 501(c)(4) comprised of 24 states and Canadian provinces. The waiver allows Ms. Williams, who served as WAFWA’s Vice President and member of the Executive Committee, to “participate in specific party matters arising at FWS or the Department where WAFWA is a party or represents a party” as well as “meetings or communications where WAFWA is present.” She is still prohibited from participating in “matters where [she] previously participated personally and substantially as board member for WAFWA.”

EPA granted two appointees “impartiality determinations” with respect to their work for State governments – Principal Deputy Associate Administrator for Policy Philip Fine for California’s South Coast Air Quality Management Division and Deputy Associate Administrator for Intergovernmental Affairs Casey Katims for work in the Washington State Governor’s office. The Biden Ethics Pledge exempts State, local and Tribal governments from the definition of former employers but federal ethics laws do not contain such a carve out.

The impartiality determinations, also known as “502 waivers” because they relate to covered relationships under 5 C.F.R. § 2635.502, permit Fine and Katims “to participate in new or future specific party matters that involve” their former employers “but not on the very same specific party matters on which [they] worked on personally and substantially while employed” at the relevant former employers.

The addition of these three waivers brings to 35 the total of waivers PPT has identified thus far in the Biden Administration, all but two of them in Executive Branch agencies. A similar project undertaken during the four years of the Trump Administration reported 49 waivers. Of those, 19 were granted to employees in the White House or Office of the Vice President with the remaining 30 for appointees in agencies. Including Fine and Katims’s waivers, EPA has granted five during the current administration. The agency awarded just three during the Trump administration, according to the contemporary waiver tracking project. Williams’s waiver is the second PPT has identified at the Department of the Interior. Reports indicate one waiver, regarding post-government employment, was granted at DOI during the previous administration.

“Waivers are designed to create exceptions to the ethics and conflict of interest rules that protect the interests of the American public and, thus, should be rare,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “When any administration or agency requests an excessive number of waivers it should give the public pause and it should be incumbent upon the agency to provide the transparency allowing the public to evaluate if its interests are being properly protected. PPT will continue to seek the transparency the American public deserves.”

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EPA Official Pledges to Sever “Ties to China,” with a Catch

Protect the Public’s Trust first revealed top science official’s ongoing employment relationship with Chinese government

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust responded to the promise by a high-ranking official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finally sever his relationship with an arm of the Chinese government upon obtaining Senate confirmation. Protect the Public’s Trust first exposed that EPA had permitted Dr. Henry Christopher (Chris) Frey to take a leave of absence rather than resign from his adjunct professorship at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST), revealed in response to a PPT Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform demanded answers about Frey’s “ties to China” in a September letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
 
Heavily-redacted legal analysis revealed in Agency FOIA documents show the ethics officials wrestled with the challenge Frey’s continued relationship with the Chinese university presented to Emoluments Clause limitations. The university’s tenuous independence from the Chinese government has come under increased pressure over the last year as the regime in Beijing began implementing its strict national security law, leading to academic freedom and human rights concerns, a point EPA appears to be attempting to moot. While the Agency had not yet provided the legal basis for their decision permitting Frey to maintain this relationship, this recent development suggests that the unexpected transparency of the issue from PPT and House Oversight members has forced the agency leadership and the White House to begin reversing course.
 
Dr. Chris Frey is currently the EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science Policy in the Office of Research and Development (ORD) and has been nominated to be Assistant Administrator for Research and Development at ORD. The Ethics Agreement he signed that contains his pledge to resign from his post at HKUST upon confirmation was posted on the Office of Government Ethics website on Saturday, October 9.

“This development constitutes a very small step in the right direction, and likely came about only because Protect the Public’s Trust brought the issue to light and members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform forcefully pressed EPA and the White House on it,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust said. “The American public has very legitimate questions concerning why a high-level official at EPA was ever allowed to maintain an employment relationship with an arm of the Chinese government while working at the agency. The responses from EPA leadership indicate they are completely oblivious to the idea that the relationship could be the least bit problematic. While these officials may not recognize any distinction between institutions in the U.S., England or Canada and those in China, Russia or Iran, the American public certainly does. We plan to continue to seek answers to the many troubling questions the American public has about this episode.” 

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Haaland’s New BLM Director Faces IG Complaint on Day One

Alleges Tracy Stone-Manning lied to Congress about participation in eco-terrorism plot

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust submitted a complaint to the Inspector General (IG) of the US Department of the Interior alleging the Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Tracy Stone-Manning violated the False Statements Act during her testimony to Congress. This is the second PPT complaint filed with the IG regarding behavior of high-level BLM officials. PPT’s first complaint prompted an investigation by the IG into potential misconduct by Nada Culver, at the time the head of the bureau and now the number two official at BLM after Ms. Stone-Manning’s recent Senate confirmation.

Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint with the US Attorney for the District of Columbia on June 22, 2021, raising concerns that Ms. Stone-Manning violated the False Statements Act in her testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. When asked if she had “ever been investigated, arrested, or charged” for a violation of the law, Ms. Stone-Manning asserted, “I have never been arrested or charged and to my knowledge I have never been the target of such an investigation.” As PPT pointed out in our complaint, her very narrow response to a broad question, “appears designed to willfully and knowingly misrepresent and/or conceal her involvement” in an eco-terrorism conspiracy. The facts publicly available at the time indicated that she had, in fact, been investigated and required to provide fingerprints, palm prints and handwriting samples to a grand jury.

Evidence that has come to light since the complaint has only served to bolster our allegations. Statements by Ms. Stone-Manning’s co-conspirator, the Assistant US Attorney who prosecuted the case, the lead federal investigator in the case and Ms. Stone-Manning herself in media interviews, support the contention that she had been untruthful in her testimony and had been investigated. Further, much of this evidence indicates that she was a target of the investigation, even receiving a “target letter” from a grand jury, contrary to her response to the Senators.

In addition to requesting the IG investigate Ms. Stone-Manning’s actions, PPT also asked that investigators look into actions by other employees at the Department of the Interior who may have assisted in misrepresenting facts to Congress. PPT requests that the IG investigate questions regarding whether any Interior employee participated in preparing, drafting, reviewing or approving any responses that misrepresented the events regarding the investigation into the eco-terrorism incident.

“The American public expects that high-ranking public servants will act with the highest levels of honesty and integrity,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Certainly, someone in the position to lead an agency with 10,000 employees and a portfolio including a large portion of U.S. land, should exemplify these traits. Sadly, Ms. Stone-Manning’s responses to the legitimate inquiries of the public’s elected representatives don’t appear to be anywhere close to this standard. Even more disappointing is that, despite the Biden Administration’s pronouncements of being the most ethical in history, Ms. Stone-Manning’s ethical challenges do not appear unique in Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior.”

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Watchdog Seeks Transparency Regarding DOJ Effort to Police School Board Meetings

Federal agencies must avoid repeats of recent abuses of power in policy debates

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced it is investigating the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) recent decision to address alleged threats against school officials and is requesting documents from DOJ and the Departments of Education and Homeland Security. To protect the American public’s trust in its government it is essential that such a program is conducted with the utmost transparency and accountability to avoid potential abuses of power.

The potential for abuse of power is not theoretical. In recent years, the IRS was forced to apologize and pay millions in settlements to dozens of organizations it denied or delayed issuance of tax-exempt status for political reasons. This was only after the agency destroyed evidence under subpoena during the investigation. Last week the DOJ Office of Inspector General issued a report documenting “widespread non-compliance” in a program allowing it to obtain permission to spy on American citizens. The DOJ has also admitted it lacked probable cause to spy on a presidential campaign staffer on whom it obtained a series of warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. An FBI official plead guilty to falsifying documents related to that case.

Based on this long list of recent misconduct, it is conceivable that this may be another inappropriate deployment of the federal government’s police power. The timing of the Attorney General’s letter contributes to a public perception that the federal government is targeting parents who have spoken up against policies being advanced by the Administration’s local union allies. Even worse, using domestic terrorism as the rationale has only heightened the perception that Americans’ civil rights are being threatened for improper purposes.  Finally, if it turns out the National School Boards Association letter, which seems to have prompted the DOJ response, was in any way solicited by the White House or Administration officials, individual officials may be facing even more serious charges of misconduct.

“We don’t have to look too far into the past for examples of federal agencies abusing their power to advance White House priorities across administrations, which has contributed to the American public’s trust in its government falling to an all-time low,” stated Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, Michael Chamberlain. “We all should condemn the use of criminal activity, threats and violence to further policy goals. By the same token, the federal government must provide transparency and respect the legitimate rights of American citizens in order to avoid abuses of its immense power when it inserts itself into a highly-charged atmosphere.”

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Watchdog Releases Video Highlighting Possible False Statements of New BLM Director

Video contrasts responses to Tracy Stone-Manning’s testimony with Biden Administration’s ethics pronouncements

Today, Federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust released a video highlighting possible false statements by newly confirmed Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning in response to her confirmation by the US Senate. The video displays a stark contrast between the comments of Senators who believe she provided false testimony, or even “perjury,” and the high ethical standards the Biden Administration espouses publicly.

On June 22, Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint with the US Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia alleging Ms. Stone-Manning violated the False Statements Act in her written testimony to a Senate committee evaluating her nomination. Since the filing, more evidence has emerged supporting the allegations made in the complaint, including a letter from the lead federal investigator of the eco-terrorism case involving Ms. Stone-Manning.

Despite denying that she was ever the target of an investigation, the facts revealed throughout the confirmation process and in recent weeks tell a different story. This is supported by statements from 1) Ms. Stone-Manning’s co-conspirator, 2) the Assistant US Attorney, 3) Ms. Stone-Manning’s interviews in 1990 and 1993, and 4) the lead federal criminal investigator at the time.

“The disparity between the standard of honesty the public’s elected representatives believed they received from Tracy Stone-Manning, some calling it ‘perjury,’ and the high standards the Biden Administration ostensibly sets for itself is absolutely striking,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Her sworn testimony appears to be completely at odds with the known facts, even those she expressed herself. The American public is justified to have serious concerns for the example this sets for the 40,000 employees and volunteers at BLM.”

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Watchdog Sues Interior for Secretary Haaland’s Calendar Records

Political interference may be behind Interior’s roadblocks to releasing information readily available in previous administrations

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the Department of the Interior release records responsive to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent in May pertaining to Secretary Deb Haaland’s calendar and travel records. During the two prior administrations, details of the Interior Secretary’s calendar had regularly been posted on the Department website. Recent comments by the Department’s Director of Communications indicate potential interference by political appointees may be responsible for the current lack of transparency. The lawsuit is the second FOIA lawsuit filed by PPT, following a suit against the Department of Energy last week.
 
During her tenure on the House Natural Resources Committee, then-Representative Haaland and her colleagues lodged multiple complaints regarding online calendars they believed were delayed or provided insufficient detail. Yet a former staffer of the committee’s chairman, Raul Grijalva, is now charged with maintaining the Secretary’s calendar and it appears the agency may be intentionally withholding it. The American public currently has access only to a skeleton version of Secretary Haaland’s first two weeks, with no information provided for the nearly six months since. PPT has yet to receive any documents related to its FOIA request seeking details about the Secretary’s schedule, travel, meetings and related communications it filed the first week of May.
 
An investigation by PPT reveals more than just a delayed FOIA process may be responsible. During a webinar with the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) in July, Interior’s Director of Communications, Melissa Schwartz, hinted that the lack of information provided may be the result of political interference. (Relevant excerpt below)
 
Despite Ms. Schwartz’s claims, September nears a close with more than a half-year of the Secretary’s calendar still unavailable. PPT has not received a single document in response to its FOIA. The question from SEJ at the webinar indicates broad interest in the availability of Secretary Haaland’s calendar and meeting schedule.

“Compliance with public information laws isn’t supposed to happen merely at the convenience of federal agencies or their press shops. It’s a legal obligation,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “The Department’s resistance to legitimate requests for information, in this and other instances, combined with the comments by Haaland’s communications team points to a broader lack of transparency. The American public deserves much better than what Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior is delivering.”

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Excerpt from Interior Communications Director Melissa Schwartz regarding why she prevented the Secretary’s calendar from being released or displayed publicly (from July SEJ webinar):

Moderator: Also, the Department’s website has a secretarial calendar page in the FOIA section. This lists the meetings and activities of Interior secretaries past, all the way back to Jewell. Nothing about Secretary Haaland’s meetings or her travels or anything. Why is that?

Schwartz: I was on a call earlier this week specific to FOIA requests for her calendar and then how we put those up online. Sometimes the data dump for FOIA…just doesn’t look as nice as a communications professional might want it to look… We actually did have something up and then it wasn’t inclusive enough and then we took it down. Just trying to sort of navigate how much to include, whether or not people‘s personally identifiable information needs to be redacted and what that looks… One thing I will say is we take our 508 compliance rules very, very seriously…The secretary in her first week did two pen and pad briefings with reporters and I myself promised reporters that we would have the calendar up. I have blown through my own deadline that I committed to because it’s just taking a little bit more time in the beautiful bureaucracy we work in than I expected. It’s very much on our minds. We’re really trying to use August, perhaps slightly quieter time, to get all of this up, and get us all caught up.

Watchdog Hits Granholm’s Energy Department with Lawsuit over Ethics Records

Protect the Public’s Trust sues DOE over refusal to provide records related to misconduct allegations

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) release documents related to evidence of possible misconduct by a senior leader at DOE. Upon discovering information that Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Kelly Speakes-Backman may have violated her ethics obligations in multiple public speaking engagements, PPT sought records from the agency related to the potential misconduct. DOE has since failed to produce a single record, in violation of federal law, despite several attempts by PPT to reach an accommodation.

This stonewalling, resistance to transparency and flippant attitude of leadership toward ethics obligations, such as Granholm’s continuing to hold stock in a company poised to benefit from initiatives she led, is emblematic not only of the current DOE but across federal agencies in the current Administration. PPT has documented possible violations of ethics restrictions and encountered similar unnecessary roadblocks to public disclosure at a number of agencies. The American public deserves to trust that its high-ranking officials are acting in the interests of the public they are appointed to serve, not those of former employers, colleagues and family members.

An investigation by PPT revealed that, on several occasions, Ms. Speakes-Backman appeared to have endorsed or implied participation in matters where her former employer would receive a financial benefit. She also made multiple appearances in segments that were sponsored exclusively by “Leadership Circle” members or donors to her former employer, the Energy Storage Association, while acting in her official DOE capacity. PPT also filed a parallel complaint with DOE ethics officials at the time of the Freedom of Information Act request referenced in the lawsuit. The watchdog later followed with a complaint to the DOE Inspector General after discovering even further apparent violations by Ms. Speakes-Backman.

“DOE’s refusal to turn over documents is, unfortunately, par for the course for federal agencies in this administration,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “If, as they continually boast, the Biden Administration is the most ethical in history, you certainly couldn’t tell by DOE’s actions. Not only has at least one high-ranking leader, who oversees billions in taxpayer funds, repeated behavior that appears to cross ethical lines, but Department officials are unwilling to release information related to those actions that the American public has every right to know.”

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Bureau of Land Management Move Triggers Another Investigation by Watchdog

Hurried action by Department of the Interior will move leadership thousands of miles from land and people they manage

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced it will be investigating the decision-making process that resulted in the move of headquarters personnel of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Washington, DC. This decision, which reverses a 2020 Department of the Interior (DOI) action, aligns with the position lobbied for by former employers of many current appointees and could be quite difficult to execute without cutting corners.

PPT is concerned DOI’s knee-jerk decision will open the BLM to significant liability from employment actions, lead to claims of arbitrary decision-making and create greater opportunity for misconduct to occur. According to reports and documents from Interior personnel, last year’s decision to move BLM out west took years to study and implement. Now, within six months of Secretary Haaland being confirmed, the Department has announced a similarly robust decision but likely without any of the substantive analysis that supported the agency’s previous action. The public should not be surprised to see this cause more litigation and employee disruption and raise appropriations issues if the proper procedures were not followed.

“This move is certainly appropriate for a Friday afternoon news dump,” stated Protect the Public’s Trust Director, Michael Chamberlain. “Protect the Public’s Trust will be investigating whether all of the appropriate procedures and protocols were followed in the development of this decision – if the proper cost/benefit analysis, employee surveys, relocations analysis and other studies were properly performed. In the wake of the ongoing Inspector General investigation of the bureau’s Nada Culver, other complaints and controversy surrounding Interior leadership, concerns about potential conflicts of interest among high-ranking staff, this only adds to the questions around the operations and management of the Department under Secretary Haaland.”

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REVEALED: Agencies Seek to Conceal and Thwart Transparency into Numerous Ethics Waivers

Requests for waiver documents for high-ranking officials have been slow-walked

UPDATE September 15, 2021: USDA Reverses Itself; Agrees to Provide Records

The Department of Agriculture has contacted Protect the Public’s Trust and agreed that it improperly interpreted the scope of our request and plans to expedite responsive records. 


Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust criticized the lack of transparency from the Biden Administration regarding waivers to ethics restrictions. PPT’s expanded Ethics Waiver Tracker added an additional 16 officials despite the official waiver documents for a dozen of them still being withheld by agencies. Far from being transparent, many of these officials may be working with former employers or clients without public knowledge of their agencies’ authorization to do so.

Between June 1 and 2, 2021, PPT submitted FOIA requests with 18 Federal agencies asking for the agencies’ waivers. The responses have been emblematic of the Biden Administration’s aversion to transparency – in some cases the secrecy has been quite blatant. For instance, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) responded the agency was “unable to provide any responsive records” to the request. Yet, documents available on the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) website indicate Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack was indeed granted a waiver that, according to a media report, “allows him to oversee” a program through which he collects payments from USDA. PPT has appealed USDA’s response. (See update above.)

As authority to spend trillions of dollars is granted to the Executive Branch, the public’s ability to know which officials have access to and may be doing the bidding of their former employers or clients remains a paramount concern. PPT has filed several complaints with agency Inspectors General as we have discovered officials appearing to do precisely that.

“The lack of transparency from Executive Branch agencies doesn’t comport with the Biden Administration’s claims to be the most ethical in history,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “For some of these waivers, we’re more than halfway through the time period for which they are relevant but the agencies continue to drag their feet on making them publicly available. The American public deserves to know if government officials are complying with their ethics obligations. That is not possible due to these agencies’ intransigence.”

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BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Waivers for President Biden’s Cabinet

  • HHS Secretary: From documents provided via an unrelated FOIA request with a different agency, PPT learned that Xavier Becerra’s “502 waiver” or “impartiality determination” contained “non-standard language.” Because the waiver is not publicly available, the American public has no way of knowing the matters to which Becerra’s waiver applies.
  • Treasury Secretary: Janet Yellen received a waiver allowing her to participate in matters involving companies to which she had delivered paid speeches.
  • USDA Secretary: Thomas Vilsack was granted a waiver that, according to a media report, “allows him to oversee” a program through which he collects payments from USDA.
  • NASA Administrator: Former Senator Bill Nelson received a waiver that allows him to participate in matters involving Lockheed, for whom he worked as a consultant.
  • EPA Administrator: Michael Regan was granted a “502 wavier” with respect to his work with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) which authorizes him to “participate in new or future specific party matters that involve NC DEQ.”

EXPOSED: Waivers to other senior Biden appointees revealed through FOIA documents

Agencies Refusing to Produce a Single Record

Departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, OGE and the Offices of Management and Budget and Personnel Management, Departments of Commerce (No Records Response) and Labor (No Records Response) and USDA (No Records Response – currently appealed by PPT).

Was the Administration Planning to Use Public Lands for “9/11 Victory Lap”?

Watchdog probing possible violations in plan to employ public land and facilities for celebration of Afghanistan humiliation

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced an investigation into reports the Biden Administration was planning to use public lands for a “9/11 Victory Lap” celebrating, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Thirteen American service members and scores of Afghans were killed in a terrorist attack during the disastrous withdrawal, which also left hundreds of American citizens and thousands of NATO and Afghan allies stranded in the country that is now completely controlled by the Taliban.

Media reports indicate the President’s insistence on the August 31 deadline for removal of all troops from the country was driven by the desire to use the notable anniversary as an occasion to make political hay out of his administration’s ending of America’s longest war. This artificially imposed deadline was in part responsible for the chaotic and deadly evacuation that failed to extract thousands of those the President had promised to get out of the country before military forces departed. If these actions were undertaken for political purposes with the assistance of political appointees and the use of public lands and other government resources, they may have constituted violations of the law. The American public deserves to know if political considerations were involved in this humiliating episode in U.S. history and to what extent officials of the agency that oversees America’s public lands (the Department of the Interior) aided these efforts.

“The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan was a catastrophe for which the toll continues to climb, including the tragic loss of our most precious resource – thirteen of our brave young men and women in uniform,” stated Director of Protect the Public’s Trust Michael Chamberlain. “Thousands of others the President had promised to not leave behind are now stranded at the mercy of the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. It may take a generation, if ever, for the U.S. to recover from the devastating loss of trust, prestige and influence around the world from this humiliation. The American public deserves to know what role Secretary Haaland and her political leadership team played in attempting to facilitate this victory lap and if public lands, employees and other federal resources were employed to further political activities.”

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