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Protect Democracy files lawsuit against State Department over treatment of civil service

Today we filed suit against the State Department to force compliance with a public records request from April 2017 about its treatment of civil servants. After disturbing news reports in April of last year, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records related to White House and State Department officials’ efforts to purge the State Department of civil servants with essential expertise because they weren’t viewed as politically loyal to the President.  Nearly a year has passed since we filed that request, and we haven’t received a single record.

Thanks to a whistleblower who approached Congress and the press, we now know these records exist.  We’re going to court to force the State Department to follow the law and produce them.  The records made public so far paint a chilling portrait of the State Department’s campaign to rid its ranks of “disloyal” civil servants.  “A cleaning is in order,” the Secretary of State’s Chief of Staff was told. The head of the State Department’s Policy and Planning Office kept a list of employees and their perceived loyalties.  “Turncoat,” he labelled one. And we know that at least one employee, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, saw her detail to that office cut short after outside groups aligned with the President raised questions based on her lineage – asserting (falsely) that she was born in Iran – and her presumed political differences with the President.  These sound like the actions of autocrats, not those who have sworn an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

As we explained in a Take Care post not long after we filed our original records request with the State Department, the U.S. adopted a civil service system in the early 20th Century as a response to widespread corruption, in which political parties would dole out government jobs as partisan spoils. The prior system often resulted in appointees performing tasks for which they were not qualified and being subject to doing whatever the local “boss” demanded, even if doing so was not in the public interest. Today, civil servants – nonpartisan experts who do not serve at the pleasure of the President – provide continuity, expertise, and institutional knowledge across Presidential transitions. They take an oath to uphold the Constitution and are protected by various laws from being made to do things in violation of that oath.

So it’s not surprising that scholars have identified the civil service “as a bulwark against autocracy,” or that attacks on the civil service have gone hand-in-hand with democratic decline in other countries.  One of the first steps that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took to consolidate power and move towards autocracy was a purge of civil servants.  Autocrats in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere have done the same.  We formed Protect Democracy to identify and fight against such a slide in this country.  Today’s lawsuit seeks to shine a light on anti-democratic actions of government officials so we can hold them to account and preserve the nonpartisan civil service’s vital role in maintaining a healthy democracy.  

You can read our complaint here.