GOP lawmakers seek investigation of ‘unauthorized’ disclosure of their Air Force records
Two Republican lawmakers say the Air Force alerted them that their military records were improperly released during the midterm campaign.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) was informed of the “unauthorized release” in a letter from the Air Force obtained by POLITICO. Rep. Zach Nunn (R-Iowa) said in a statement that he was told by the Air Force that his own records were also disclosed without his approval.
Bacon said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall first told him that an internal probe revealed 11 people’s records were disclosed and that the Air Force would send the results of its inquiry to the Justice Department — while offering no further information on whether a formal DOJ investigation would result. The GOP lawmaker called for a probe of the role played by a Democratic-linked firm that the Air Force told him “inappropriately requested” his personnel records.
The DOJ declined to comment. Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said “virtually all” of the 11 unapproved releases were made to the same third party “who represented himself as a background investigator seeking service records for employment purposes.”
The revelation follows the uproar over the disclosure of Indiana House GOP candidate Jennifer-Ruth Green’s military records after POLITICO reported on them in October. And it promises to intensify Republicans’ already keen interest in investigating whether other sitting members of Congress were affected — as well as the role that a Democratic-linked research firm played in the episode.
The Air Force launched its audit after the disclosure of Green’s records, according to Stefanek.
The Feb. 7 letter Bacon received from the Air Force names Abraham Payton of the research firm Due Diligence LLC as the person who “inappropriately requested copies of your military personnel records for the stated purpose of employment and benefits,” adding that Payton was already in possession of Bacon’s Social Security number. Payton is a former research director for the Democratic political group American Bridge.
Both Bacon and Nunn are calling for an investigation into whether political opposition research turned into illegal activity.
“I understand the evidence has been turned over to the Department of Justice and I expect those who break the law to be prosecuted,” Bacon said in a statement to POLITICO. “This was more than just ‘dirty tricks’ by Democrat operatives, but likely violations of the law.”
Nunn also suggested that the disclosure of his records amounted to criminal activity.
“The recent targeting of Members of Congress’s personnel military records [and] the breach of sensitive data … taken by political hacks isn’t only a violation of public trust — it’s criminal,” he said in a statement.
How it began
Bacon said the Air Force began looking into the matter in response to what happened to Green, who lost a battleground-district race in November to Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-Ind.).
The Air Force publicly acknowledged the unauthorized release of Green’s records to “a third party,” though it did not specify whether that person was the same individual who provided them to POLITICO during the campaign.
POLITICO was told by the person who gave it Green’s military records that they were obtained through a public records request. POLITICO reviewed the request for the records made by a third party, which sought a “publicly releasable/redacted copy of OMPF [Official Military Personnel File] per Freedom of Information Act statutes.” The requester identified the purpose of the request as relating to “benefits,” “employment” and “other.”
POLITICO also reviewed the letter sent in response to the requester. A military employee responded with a password-protected version of the file with limited redactions. After publication, the Air Force said it erred in releasing the records and launched an investigation.
Stefanek, the Air Force spokesperson, said in an October statement that a “preliminary” inquiry found Green’s “service record was released to a third party by a junior individual who didn’t follow proper procedures and obtain required consent.”
After POLITICO’s initial reporting on Green’s Air Force records, Green responded that the material was “illegally” obtained. Her records referenced a sexual assault she experienced during her time in service.
Green blamed Mrvan and his allies for the release. Mrvan’s campaign has denied any involvement, and a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told Fox News at the time that “we would never use anyone’s experience with sexual assault against them.”
Green spokesperson Kevin Hansberger said in a statement last week that the release of her “and other Republicans’ personal records is reprehensible and illegal.”
“There must be full transparency of the investigation and its findings. Those responsible for these illegal acts should face criminal charges and be held accountable for their actions,” Hansberger added.
Hansberger reiterated Green’s previous argument that political opponents were behind the release of her records, saying that the incident shows that Democrats “will go to any lengths necessary, even breaking the law, to protect their interests.”
DCCC did not return a request for comment on whether it received and used materials provided by Due Diligence Group during the 2022 midterms. According to Federal Election Commission records, the House Democratic campaign arm paid Due Diligence just over $110,000 between January 2021 and December 2022.
Due Diligence’s website states that it uses “public records research to provide our clients with the knowledge and insights needed to drive strategic decision making.”
It’s unclear whether Payton and Due Diligence were the only third-party entities that sought the service records.
Stefanek, the Air Force spokesperson, said in a response to written questions: “Virtually all unauthorized disclosures were in response to a third party who represented himself as a background investigator seeking service records for employment purposes through a process commonly used by other federal agencies to conduct employee background checks.”
Due Diligence did not respond to requests for comment. Payton, whom POLITICO attempted to reach at an email address connected to Due Diligence, did not respond to a request for comment.
Tracking the extent of the releases
The Republican chairs of the House Oversight and Armed Services Committees publicly revealed last week that the Air Force had improperly released the records of 11 people to “a private research firm which allegedly misrepresented itself in order to obtain access.” That GOP letter also identified Due Diligence as the firm that obtained Green’s records.
Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in their letter last week for the full list of people affected by improper records disclosures.
The House GOP duo also sought details on any actions — “administrative or punitive” — taken against those involved in the unauthorized release, and whether any criminal referrals have taken place regarding the matter.
“This news comes on the heels of a prior admission by the Air Force to having inappropriately released the [military personnel files] of former Republican Congressional candidate Jennifer-Ruth Green to the very same research firm, Due Diligence Group,” Rogers and Comer wrote. “That disclosure served to revictimize a servicemember by releasing details about her sexual assault.”
The House GOP committee chairs mentioned only Due Diligence in their letter, not Payton. Additionally, Nunn provided no further information regarding the notification he received of the unauthorized release.
Rogers and Comer asked the Pentagon chief to provide further information by Feb. 27, arguing that “it is essential that the men and women of the Armed Forces trust their leadership’s ability to protect private personnel data from improper disclosure.”
POLITICO contacted more than a dozen House Republican lawmakers and 2022 candidates who served in the Air Force to ask whether the military has notified them of an authorized disclosure similar to those experienced by Green, Bacon and Nunn. None replied in the affirmative.
The releases of records occurred between October 2021 and October 2022, according to Air Force spokesperson Stefanek.
“Department of the Air Force employees did not follow proper procedures requiring the member’s authorizing signature consenting to the release of information. There was no evidence of political motivation or malicious intent on the part of any employee,” Stefanek wrote.
She added that the “Air Force takes full responsibility for releasing the personally identifiable information of these individuals. Records-release procedures have been improved by elevating the approval level for release of information to third parties and conducting intensified retraining for personnel who handle record requests.”
The letter Bacon received from the Air Force’s Texas-based personnel center states that its investigation revealed “no criminal action or malicious intent” on the part of the military employee who released his information.
Bacon, however, is pushing for more information on whether the DCCC or the Democratic-linked House Majority super PAC played any role in the military’s releases of the information.
House Majority PAC said it had no relationship with Due Diligence during the 2022 campaign cycle and did not use the firm’s work in any activity on the Green-Mrvan race.
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Author: By Olivia Beavers