Watchdog: Accountability

Exposing government's dark places is Tom Fitton's daily passion

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Congress,Watchdog,Judicial Watch,Waste and Fraud,Whistleblowers,Accountability,FOIA

When government officials evade Freedom of Information Act requests from Tom Fitton's Judicial Watch, they should know odds are good that eventually, a federal judge will tell them to stop playing games and cough up the documents.

Unfortunately for citizens, recalcitrant officials too often hang on as long as they possibly can. That doesn't deter Fitton one bit.

"We are an educational foundation, and all of our investigations, whether it be litigation or investigations, are designed to get information and educate people about what their government is up to," said Fitton, who has led the Washington-based investigative non-profit since 1998.

Judicial Watch was founded by lawyer Larry Klayman in 1994 and made its name as an aggressive hunter for government documents using the FOIA.

Klayman filed nearly two dozen FOIA suits while Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office. Judicial Watch's reward was to audited repeatedly by the IRS.

Despite the obstacles, Judicial Watch still managed to expose much wrong-doing in government, including a Clinton administration program that illegally sold seats on U.S. Commerce Department international trade junkets to raise campaign contributions.

Hired and promoted by Klayman, Fitton became a steadying hand on the tiller as Klayman's interests turned from pursuing government documents to pursuing votes. Klayman left Judicial Watch to pursue an unsuccessful bid in the Florida Republican Senate primary in 2003.

A native of West Nyack, N.Y., a village located about an hour north of Manhattan, Fitton's father was a supermarket manager and his mother was a nurse. His interest in politics and government started at a young age.

"I had been working for Paul Weyrich's Conservative Network and that's how I hooked up with Judicial Watch," he said.

"I started in 1990, and I came because I wanted to investigate serious scandals," he said. "What attracted me to it was that Judicial Watch was virtually alone investigating in a serious way the campaign finance scandals of the Clinton administration known as Chinagate."

That scandal was touched off when Bob Woodward of Watergate fame and Brian Duffy, his Washington Post colleague, reported that Department of Justice investigators believed Chinese government officials were illegally directing campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee in connection with the 1996 campaign.

Judicial Watch uncovered additional evidence that helped uncover widespread campaign finance violations by individuals of questionable backgrounds, including Johnny Chung, John Huang, Charlie Trie and others.

What was true then of Judicial Watch remained so under President George W. Bush and has continued throughout President Obama's time in the Oval Office.

Judicial Watch advocates greater transparency in government no matter which political party is in charge at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but Obama's tenure has been particularly difficult for Americans who believe in a limited, open federal government, Fitton said.

"Government under this administration is too big and too secretive, and it all goes hand-in-hand," Fitton said.

Friends and donors of the president get sweetheart deals and bailouts like Solyndra. "Under the guise of saving the world, Obama has actually been saving Obama donors," Fitton said.

Things weren't easy during the Bush administration, either, Fitton said, noting that when Judicial Watch sued for documents from an energy task force led by Vice President Cheney, the White House fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

"No one had to lecture us on Bush administration secrecy," Fitton said.

Obama came into office complaining about Bush's secrecy, but in many ways the current White House is just as secretive, he said.

"Administratively, in terms of the everyday back-and-forth of the Freedom of Information Act, Obama's people have made things more difficult," he said. "Their legal arguments have been much more aggressive in defending government secrecy than anything George Bush could ever dream of."

As an example, Fitton cited Judicial Watch's efforts to determine the costs of presidential vacation travel under Obama.

"You wouldn't not think it was a state-secret to find out the cost of the First Family's luxury travel -- we've had to sue repeatedly for instance, for information about the cost Michelle Obama's trips to Africa, where she seems to have spent most of her time on safari, or her vacation on the sun coast of Spain," he said.

In an age of debt and sequester, government waste is always interesting to Americans, he said.

"All we do is talk about government corruption, transparency and the rule of law," he said. "We are not the largest watchdog group in the country."

Fitton's group had 35 full-time employees in 2011, according to it's most recently available IRS tax return, and received more than $15.3 million in contributions, virtually all from small donors.

Neil W. McCabe is a Washington, D.C.,-based journalist.

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