Trump Voting Commission Faces Lawsuit From Within Alleging Lack Of Transparency

Nov 9, 2017

The Trump administration’s election commission has gone largely silent since its September meeting in Manchester. But one of its members, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, says even he is having trouble finding out basic information about the commission’s work — and he’s now filing a lawsuit seeking more transparency.

In a complaint filed Thursday, Dunlap claims the commission is skirting federal records laws by allowing members to use their personal emails for communication about official business as part of a deliberate effort to keep some of their colleagues and the public in the dark.

“I’m not asking for secrets,” Dunlap said. “I want to know what we’re working on.”

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is among the commission members who has been using personal email for commission-related work — but he has also turned over communications sent to that account in response to records requests from NHPR and other groups.

Dunlap told NHPR he grew concerned about a lack of clarity around the commission’s work for several reasons.

For one, Dunlap said he was perplexed by a recent fundraising email from a group called the “Minnesota Voters Alliance” claiming it had been invited to speak at an upcoming commission meeting — but Dunlap was unaware of any such invitation. As of Thursday, Dunlap said he received no communication about plans for the commission’s next meeting, period.

Dunlap said he was also blindsided by media reports that a federal employee assigned to the commission had been arrested on child pornography charges — because he didn’t realize that employee was working on the commission in the first place. 

“As I’ve asked over and over again for information about what we’re working on, who’s having what discussions and what our schedule is, I’ve just gotten less and less information,” Dunlap said. “I haven’t had any response to my last communications from a couple of weeks ago.”

The commission's executive director told ProPublica Dunlap's lawsuit "has no merit and we look forward to refuting it in court.”

Gardner said he, too, has heard little from the rest of the commission since their September meeting. He’s also waiting for more guidance on what to do with the checklist information New Hampshire compiled in response to the commission’s request for voter information from all 50 states.

“We let them know that it’s ready,” Gardner said. “But we have not gotten the link to do it. We’re just waiting.”

As for his approach to email, Gardner says he decided to direct communication about the Trump voting commission to his personal email whenever possible because critics asked him not to use any state resources toward that work.

“I thought about that and decided I would do the best I could to not have the office involved in it,” Gardner said. “It’s not as easy to do it, because there’s some overlap. People will call, and you don’t know what they’re asking about, and you’ll call back and it’ll be about the commission.”

As NHPR reported last month, records released by Gardner and his office show that some staff time has been expended toward commission-related work. In one case, Gardner sought security clearances for staff attorneys to accompany him to the commission’s inaugural meeting in Washington.

Gardner said he has not accepted any reimbursement for travel expenses related to the commission. Instead, he said he is paying for both himself and other members of his staff out-of-pocket.

“I’m getting hit both ways,” Gardner said of criticism he’s received about his approach to commission-related recordkeeping. “No matter whether I go one way, there are people that feel to the contrary.”

While Gardner said he views his role on the commission as being in a “personal capacity,” his Maine counterpart has taken a different route. Dunlap said it’s his firm belief that his role on the commission is inextricably linked to his role as Secretary of State.

“The reason I was asked to be on this commission I would assume it’s because I’m the chief elections officer of a state, and that’s in my professional capacity,” Dunlap said. “They didn’t put me on this commission because I tie a really good tandem grey ghost fishing fly. They put me on because I have some expertise in the affected areas because of my professional capacity.”

For that reason, Dunlap said he wants to make sure he and the commission at large are publicly accountable for their work.