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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Democratic lawmakers sue over Trump administration secrecy

The Trump International Hotel is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
By Tami Abdollah and Jeff Horwitz Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Democratic members of the House oversight committee filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday over the Trump administration’s refusal to turn over information about the Trump family’s lease of the Trump Hotel in Washington.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of 17 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It accuses the acting head of the General Services Administration, Timothy Horne, of violating a nearly 90-year-old federal law and preventing lawmakers from conducting oversight by refusing to turn over records on the hotel requested months ago.

GSA spokeswoman Pamela Dixon said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Located in the federally-owned Old Post Office building two blocks from the White House, the Trump Washington hotel has become a magnet for both political operatives and ethics complaints. After losing more than $1 million in its first two months of operation just prior to the election, the hotel’s fortunes reversed after Trump became president, turning a $1.97 million profit as of August.

As president, Trump has declined to sell off his stake in the hotel despite a prohibition in the lease on elected officials obtaining any benefit that “may arise from the lease.” Democrats have alleged that Trump’s ownership of the property creates a conflict of interest and that, under his lease with the General Services Administration, he is obligated to sell his stake in the property.

But the GSA under Trump has declined to force such a divestiture – and the agency is also refusing to provide Democrats with records regarding how it determined Trump was complying with the contract and records on the GSA’s ongoing relationship with the Trump hotel.

“President Trump’s refusal to divest his ownership interest in a company that contracts with the federal government raises numerous issues requiring congressional oversight,” the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, and 16 other oversight Democrats said in the lawsuit. They were represented by Georgetown law professor David Vladeck and Scott Nelson of Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group.

The lawsuit seeks information about whether Trump is using the office of the presidency for private gain, the hotel’s profitability, GSA’s management of the lease and the decision not to force Trump to divest himself from the property. By failing to provide such information, the head of the GSA “has deprived the plaintiffs of information to which they are entitled by law,” the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs’ success hinges on a 1928 law that established what is known as “the seven-member rule.” According to that law, if seven members of the House oversight committee join a request, a federal agency “shall submit any information requested of it relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the committee.”

Despite the straightforward language of the 1928 law, its enforceability is unclear. It has been the subject of “inconclusive litigation” per the 18th edition of Deschler-Brown-Johnson-Sullivan Precedents of the United States House of Representatives. A 2002 lawsuit brought by members of Congress seeking Census records won in district court, but was dismissed as moot on the appellate level after the records were produced through other means.

Members of the committee requested information on the Old Post Office lease last December and received documents. When eight members made the request in February, however, they received no reply. The Democrats’ demand runs head-on into a May legal opinion drafted by President Trump’s Office of Legal Counsel, which informed federal agencies that they are not obligated to respond to information requests from the minority party.

In July, the GSA denied the Democrats’ request, saying the administration would respond only when congressional requests come from “a committee, subcommittee or chairman authorized to conduct oversight.”

Republicans did not join in the multiple requests for information to the GSA regarding the hotel earlier this year, and so did not have standing to participate in the lawsuit. Cummings accused the House Republicans of “aiding and abetting President Trump’s ongoing abuses” and walling him off from congressional oversight.

A representative for the committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said Gowdy declined to comment.