‘No record’ response raises questions about Democratic candidate’s claim in security clearance form controversy

Posted at 10:41 AM, Sep 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-21 12:41:24-04

The law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service says that it has no record of receiving an official request for a Democratic Virginia congressional candidate’s official personnel file, despite the candidate claiming the request was sent on her behalf in December 2017.

The disclosure is the latest development in a controversy that has erupted in the US House race in Virginia’s 7th District, where ex-CIA officer Abigail Spanberger is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Dave Brat, and it raises questions about suggestions made by Spanberger and her allies that she was politically targeted by the Trump administration.

In addition to insinuating that the improper release of her personnel file to a Republican research firm was part of an effort to hurt her candidacy, Spanberger’s campaign has suggested that her own request for the same information was mishandled by the United States Postal Inspection Service, where she worked prior to joining the CIA.

America Rising, the Republican firm, ignited the controversy when it obtained a copy of Spanberger’s unredacted security clearance questionnaire from the USPS. The questionnaire, which the firm acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, contained highly personal information such as Spanberger’s social security number and medical information. The GOP-aligned group disseminated the document to push negative stories against Spanberger, focusing particularly on her work as a substitute teacher at a Saudi-funded school in Virginia.

The United States Postal Service has said the release of the former employee’s file was a mistake, saying that her personal information was endangered without her authorization due to “human error.” But in the midst of the controversy, Spanberger’s campaign and other Democrats suggested that the release of the form to American Rising was politically motivated. The Postal Service said in its statement that, along with America Rising’s request, “a small number of additional requests for information from personnel files were improperly processed.”

Spanberger’s campaign said a researcher working on behalf of the campaign submitted a similar public records request in December and got no response, even though that was sent months before America Rising sent one. The researcher said that he did not suspect that anything had gone wrong because government agencies typically take a long time to respond to FOIA requests.

However, in response to a FOIA request from CNN’s KFile, USPIS said that it had no records of the request from the Spanberger campaign’s researcher.

Asked last month to provide evidence of their researcher’s request, the Spanberger campaign told CNN’s KFile that it had been sent by mail and that they therefore could not produce a hard copy. FOIA requests to the USPIS can be submitted by email or through the mail.

The campaign offered a signed and notarized statement from Chris Allen, an opposition researcher hired to compile a docket of all publicly available information on the candidate, a common practice in campaigns for office. Allen said that, in the course of this effort, he submitted the December 2017 request to the United States Postal Inspection Service.

Allen claimed that USPIS sent him nothing back.

“As the purpose of this request was to determine what information would be publically available and given my prior experience with lengthy FOIA response times, I assessed the lack of a timely response as normal,” the researcher wrote in his statement.

The researcher added that he sent a public records request to the CIA through its online portal the same month. A spokesperson for Spanberger’s campaign sent CNN’s KFile a photograph of a letter from the intelligence agency confirming that they had received that request.

The USPIS’ response to CNN’s KFile’s request said that a search for records of requests related to Spanberger conducted at National Headquarters “disclosed no records of FOIA requests related to Abigail Spanberger between December 1, 2017 and August 1, 2018.”

In an emailed statement to CNN’s KFile, Dana Bye, Spanberger’s campaign manager, maintained that the request had been sent, suggesting the failure lay with USPIS.

She said, “We don’t know why the Postal Service has no record of the FOIA request filed by the researcher we hired, just as we don’t know why the Postal Service released Abigail’s full, unredacted National Security Questionnaire (SF86) in response to America Rising’s FOIA and in violation of federal law, the Privacy Act. Similarly, we cannot explain why the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) would email Abigail’s full unredacted SF86 to news outlet(s) with zero regard for her personal, private information, including her medical information and social security number, part of which is still posted on their website.”

She added, “It is clear the system has failed in multiple ways that are disappointing for Abigail, just as they would be disappointing for any federal employee or military member who believed their information would be protected.”

America Rising CEO Joe Pounder said in a statement to CNN’s KFile that the lack of a record of the researcher’s request “proves” that Spanberger has been lying.

“Abigail Spanberger’s allegations have been false from the very beginning and this just proves she was making it up as she went and telling outright falsehoods to voters and reporters alike,” he said.

Asked if it was possible that the FOIA office lost the request, a USPIS spokesperson maintained they had no records of the request.

The Republican group sent its FOIA request to the National Records Center on July 9, 2018. It was then forwarded it to the Postal Service, which keeps a separate FOIA office from the Postal Inspection Service. Spanberger told The New York Times in August that postal service officials told her that the request had been mistakenly sent to the human resources department instead of going through the normal public records process. The paper quoted her as saying that she was “incredulous” that the agency was “blaming it on one particular woman who is the one responsible for this.”

The Postal Service said last month that it “deeply regrets our mistake in inappropriately releasing Ms. Spanberger’s Official Personnel File (‘OPF’) to a third-party, which occurred because of human error. We take full responsibility for this unfortunate error, and we have taken immediate steps to ensure this will not happen again.”

Spanberger, however, alleged that her documents had been obtained improperly, telling the Times, “There’s no legal way they could have gotten this fully unredacted SF-86. And the next question, what does it mean they are actually pushing it around? What do I have to hide? Absolutely nothing.”

According to The Washington Post, former CIA officer and Obama White House aide Ned Price said in August on a conference call with Spanberger and members of the media that it was “difficult to believe” that the document was released due to a clerical error, saying that it could be an act of “political vengeance” by the Trump administration.

The New York Times reported that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, made a similar suggestion, in a letter to over a dozen congressional candidates, saying, “This is an official government document that only President Trump’s administration should have in its possession in its unredacted form.”

He added, “To be clear, we have no reason to believe that Republican groups have illegally obtained any of your personnel files, nor are we certain how C.L.F. got Ms. Spanberger’s document in the first place. But even the evidence of this isolated incident is deeply troubling.”

Following the release of the personnel file, America Rising sent on the documents to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Both groups deny the charge that the document was illegally obtained.

Spanberger’s campaign further accused CLF of having shown the documents to media outlets. In ads, the CLF negatively portrayed Spanberger’s past work as a teacher at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, VA, where she worked prior to the USPIS.

The USPS told CNN’s KFile last month that it would not go further than what it said in that statement.

Roll Call, however, reported last week that the Postal Service inspector general is investigating the release of Spanberger’s personnel file. A spokesperson for the inspector general’s office did not confirm the investigation to CNN’s KFile, saying that they are conducting a review of the issue after Congress asked them to look into it.