As debate rages in Congress over spending packages and election reform bills, Senate confirmations for President Joe Biden’s executive branch nominees continue to move forward.
Some higher profile nominees—such as Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget and David Chipman as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—attracted enough critical attention to sink their nominations.
But Biden nominees such as Tracy Stone-Manning, his choice to run the Bureau of Land Management, have flown largely under the radar.
“I think she’s indicative of this pattern in the Biden administration of where they’re just not bothering [to vet nominees] and they’re just pushing [them] through,” says Tom Jones, co-founder of American Accountability Foundation, a nonpartisan educational organization that highlights the administration’s appointments.
Jones joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss some of Biden’s most problematic nominees and why Americans should keep a close eye on the process.
We also cover these stories:
- Biden says he has “great confidence” in Gen. Mark Milley to continue as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff despite published reports that Milley secretly spoke with a Chinese counterpart near the end of the Trump administration.
- Former President Donald Trump criticizes Milley’s reported actions, as do Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
- Republican governors accuse the Biden administration of playing politics with the COVID-19 pandemic after the White House announces it will restrict distribution of an effective treatment to fight the coronavirus.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is Tom Jones, co-founder of American Accountability Foundation, a nonpartisan educational organization that conducts research into government oversight as well as fact-checking to hold government accountable. Welcome to “The Daily Signal Podcast,” Tom.
Tom Jones: Hey, thanks for having me on.
Blair: Excellent. So let’s start with a little bit about your organization and President [Joe] Biden’s nominees. You are closely monitoring the president’s [executive branch] nominees … and you’ve set up a whole website called bidennoms.com that highlights some of the problems with the nominees. One of those nominees is Tracy Stone-Manning, which is the nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management, and she’s pretty radical. So why don’t we start there? What can you tell us about her and why she’s so radical?
Jones: Sure. There’s a couple problems with Tracy Stone-Manning. We’ll kind of put them in two buckets.
There’s first the problem with her radical leftist agenda. And this is some of the issues that we’ve seen filter up with her affiliation with Earth First! and other leftist groups like that. So we can talk about those a little bit.
And then there’s kind of a different bucket of personal improprieties, particularly pertaining to some loans that she’s taken. I think they’re really worth exploring as well because they’re a little bit unique.
So, happy to talk about either of those, which ones you want to go into first?
Blair: I think we should definitely start with Earth First! For those listeners who don’t know what that is, what is Earth First!?
Jones: Sure. Earth First! is the most radical of the leftist environmentalist groups. These guys make the National Resources Defense Council look like the Petroleum Institute. … What they do is [what] they call monkeywrenching. And these are guys who go in and destroy private property, literally pouring sand into the gas tanks of bulldozers.
And one of their most egregious behaviors was a thing called tree spiking. What they would do is they take the railroad spikes and they drive them into timber on lands that are being logged.
And you’re kind of like, “Well, that’s weird. Why would they do that?” So what happens is it creates this situation where if you want to go out and log and you take a chainsaw into one of these trees, you end up catching this spike. And it’s really pretty grisly because what happens is the chain on the chainsaw breaks and it can be really, really deadly.
So what they’ll do is they go spike trees and then they tell folks, “You’d have to go pull the spikes out.” It’d be really problematic, but it was their way of taking forests offline. But you never know if you’ve got all of them. So you could be out there just cutting down a tree and you catch this spike and it could really maim a logger. It’s a really irresponsible and dangerous practice. So she was involved with that group and part of their tree-spiking activities.
Blair: Oh, wow. OK. So she was part of this. I mean, it’s an ecoterrorist group, it sounds like what you’re saying, but you’ve also described that she’s maybe had a little bit of impropriety in her past. Can you maybe expand a little bit further on that?
Jones: So, a little bit of background, I’m a former Senate staffer. I worked in the Senate for 12 years and worked in a number of positions. In 2008, Tracy Stone-Manning and I were both working in the U.S. Senate. She was working in Sen. [Jon] Tester’s state office as a state rep, but a Senate employee.
And I give that background because it’s important because when I was a Senate staffer, all Senate staff were taking very extensive training on the gift and ethics rules in the Senate. They were a really big deal. We come out of this every off year with a lot of really, really problematic things going on with influence peddling. And we had adopted a really aggressive policy on gifts.
So we got training on it. I sat through it. I mean, it was a long training. They were very clear. Everybody from the staff assistants answering the phones on Social Security payments to the senators, we were all taking these trainings. They were very serious and we were given very clear instructions on what we could take on gifts.
Where it becomes a problem for her is, her and her husband had a business back in 2008 and the economy went sideways. A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of Americans had to go bankrupt and it was terrible. There was a lot of irresponsible things going on in the mortgage lending industry.
His business fell on hard times. Now, what happened when it happened for most Americans is we had to file bankruptcy. It’s terrible. It ruins your credit. You got to really go into rebuilding it and there’s a lot of long-term consequences. Well, that’s not what happened for them.
Tracy Stone-Manning, she has an influential developer friend. He comes in over the top and says, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to give you a $100,000 loan for this business.” I mean, I’ve got a lot of great friends. They’re not giving me $100,000 loans.
But even if you do have friends giving you $100,000 loans, where it becomes a problem is, if you work in the U.S. Senate, anything over $50, you can’t take that as a gift. And this is lunches. This is presents for whatever. You’re not allowed to take gifts. It’s bright line, clear prohibition. And the language in the gift rule includes loans in that. So it says you cannot take a loan unless it’s at market rates.
So if I wanted to take a $100,000 loan, I’ve got to go down to Bank of America and say, “Hey, I need to borrow a loan for my failing business for $100,000 so we can stay afloat.” You’re never going to get that loan. And what happened is she had this friend that came in and gave her the $100,000 loan. They paid off $40,000 of it and converted it to a $60,000 loan.
And then it becomes even more problematic. So she’s got the $60,000 loan. She goes on, leaves Tester’s staff, goes and serves at the Department of Environmental Quality in Montana, eventually becomes Gov. [Steve] Bullock’s chief of staff. So, serving in government.
Why we never find out about it is Montana’s unique. They’re one of the few states in the country that don’t require senior officials in the government to file a financial disclosure form. So we never find out about this. So she gets nominated for this [Bureau of Land Management] position and she has to disclose she’s got a $60,000 outstanding loan. We’re like, “What’s going on here? We don’t know what this is.”
So questions go back and forth. And we finally find out from the Senate she had the $60,000 loan. All that she was making for payments was annual interest, about … $360 per year on this loan, never paying down any of the principal.
Now, look, I couldn’t get a loan like that. Nobody’s going to give me an interest-only personal loan unsecured right after my business went bankrupt—like, it’s nutty. I think what’s clear happened here is she had never had any intent to repay this loan.
This guy, Stuart Goldberg, who’s a big developer in Montana, had just waved it off. He’s like, “Whatever, I don’t care about this.” This guy’s worth a ton of money. He’s like, “I don’t care.” But she got into this process and suddenly discovered, “Oh, wait a minute. I got to disclose this thing.” And it created all these problems because I think there’s a number of issues in addition to this that she hasn’t really resolved yet.
I think that she never disclosed the loans to her lenders when she borrowed money for houses that she’s bought in the interim years. That is a federal crime. I’ve pulled all the records on her deeds in Montana. They’re all federally insured loans. So unless she disclosed this information to the banks, and I don’t think she did, she’s committed mortgage fraud. That’s a serious problem.
She hasn’t answered that. She says, “Oh, well, I don’t have those records anymore.” Look, I bought my house in 2007. I can go pull every record on the application I have. It’s sitting in my email and it’s sitting in a stack in my closet with paperwork. The idea that she somehow can’t find the applications for the three mortgages that she’s applied for in the interim years, it’s just not realistic. So that’s deeply problematic.
She’s probably committed mortgage fraud. She took an unacceptable gift while a Senate staffer or something. Look, I couldn’t even take a lunch from my buddy over at The Monocle, much less a $100,000 loan. And what’s really telling is she admits, “I never asked the Ethics Committee about this.” There’s a reason she never asked the Ethics Committee about this, because they just would have said no.
Blair: Now, given that she has this ecoterrorism in her background with Earth First! and she has this loan that we can’t explain and the gifts, how did she get this far in the process?
Jones: Yeah. I think you got a couple of things going on. We’ve been vetting a lot of people because Senate staff’s overworked, they’ve got a really high tempo. So part of the mission of my organization is to fill that space in vetting. So we’ve been looking at a lot of people.
And unfortunately, I think there’s either one of two things that’s happening in the Biden administration. Either they don’t care about vetting and they’re just going to kind of ignore it or they do the vetting and they’re so confident that they can just push these candidates through that they send up people who are deeply flawed. And I’ll give you kind of a couple examples.
So Kristen Clarke, we started looking at her. She’s now the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice. We started looking at her a couple months ago and I started doing background research on her, and she’s divorced.
So it’s kind of the traditional part of when you do a background investigation, whether it’s for a security clearance or at the Presidential Personnel Office, you call up ex-spouses, because they may have something to provide. They may just be angry and annoyed, which is entirely possible, but you call them up and you do the due diligence.
So I found Reginald Avery, her ex-husband, talked to him, and I was like, “Hey, these concerns you’ve just relayed to me, did you share them with the FBI when they came by?” He said, “What you’re talking about? I never talked to the FBI.” So after talking to some folks on the Hill, they’re like, “Yeah, the FBI said they couldn’t find her.”
And I mean, look, I’m good at my job, but this wasn’t like some supersleuthing here. Like, the guy had a LinkedIn profile. So they just didn’t care about it when they did her. Same thing with this guy at [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], Dave Chipman, this guy’s a former federal employee. They know where his records are. He worked for the U.S. government for 22 years. Like, they just need to go, “Hey, send me Dave’s file.”
We asked for the complaints against Dave Chipman and we sent over Freedom of Information Act requests for them and said, “I want to see the complaints in his personnel record,” because those disciplinary records can be disclosed in a FOIA. Their response back was, “We don’t know where they are. We think they might be in St. Louis at the National Personnel Records Center, but we’re not really sure.” Which leads me to believe that they didn’t bother with them. Because if they did vet him, they’d be sitting in ATF because they would have looked over these things.
And I think that’s what’s happened here with Tracy Stone-Manning. They surely knew about the ecoterrorism stuff because this came up in 2013 when she was confirmed for the director of environmental quality in Montana and it’s been out there. It wasn’t probed as deeply as it’s being probed now.
And I really need to brag on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The oversight that that committee is doing both at the staff level and at the member level is unusual and very impressive. They’ve really gone out and dug into her past to really give the American people a full picture of who she is because the Biden administration isn’t going to do it and they didn’t do it, but the Energy and Natural Resources Committee really is.
But I think she’s indicative of this pattern in the Biden administration of where they’re just not bothering [to vet nominees] and they’re just pushing [them] through. And look, I mean, it’s working most of the time. The Biden administration has only had to pull down, really, two candidates. So they probably figured out that this works. They can just ram things through. Maybe that’ll work with Tracy Stone-Manning, maybe it won’t.
Blair: In terms of an update as to where we are with this as recently as the recording of this episode, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, divided along party lines, voted her out of committee. They gave her a pass on that one. So it looks like she is going to go up for a confirmation vote. Despite the baggage, it does appear that Senate Democrats are comfortable with doing this, as you’ve described. What are the consequences if she gets confirmed? What happens if she is able to [run the Bureau of Land Management]?
Jones: Well, yeah, so, I think her past behavior is going to inform how she is going to behave in the future. This is somebody who just didn’t take these things, these ethics rules seriously. And [the Bureau of Land Management] has some seriously important decision-making roles on how public lands can be used by commercial, recreational, conservation interests.
This is somebody who took $100,000 from a developer, never disclosed it to anybody. She’s not somebody who’s going to be driving between the lines and call balls and strikes on the rules as they’re written because she clearly doesn’t have a respect for them because she knew she couldn’t take this loan, but she took it anyway.
I mean, look, that should be the reason that senators should vote against her, but unfortunately, I think they’re going to push her through and I just don’t think you can trust somebody who has a pattern of unethical behavior to lead an agency that’s so involved and so high profile, high consequence decision-making.
Like, can we do mineral extraction on land, oil, and gas? Should we be locking this up for conservation? Should we have public easements here? All of those decisions are waiting and very consequential financially, but she’s just not played by the rules in the past and I don’t think she’s going to do it in the future.
Blair: Yeah, I think that that’s a good point to know that we’ve seen what she is capable of already, why would we be shocked if there was this behavior in the future? On a slightly different topic, I’m surprised that Senate Democrats seem to have no issues with advancing this type of nominee. Are you surprised? And then a follow-up question to that [would] be, what should Senate Republicans do? What advice would you give them as they’re navigating this scenario?
Jones: Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m not surprised. I mean, the Democrats seem to be much more disciplined than the Republicans and they’ve been very good about this. So … I think Republican leadership in the Senate, what they really need to do is they need to start holding their members together.
The thing I learned when I worked in the Senate was it’s a body that works on collegiality and unanimous consent. And if you blow up the process and if you use procedural tools to frustrate things, you can actually have positive outcomes.
What our leadership needs to be doing is holding all our guys together and making sure the vice president is camping out off the floor, having to cast tie-breaking votes on this. It sounds like it’s a ticky-tacky thing, but it’s really not. It really blows up the process. It complicates it. It makes it much harder for them to move nominees through.
If they know every time they get somebody that’s even close to a flawed nominee that they’re going to have to pull the vice president out of Guatemala or wherever she is this week and make her come sit on the Senate floor and vote, it’ll really kind of chase them on casting these types of votes and pushing these nominees through.
So I really hope that [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell holds our guys together and says, “Look, this is going to be 50/50 every day on these noms because you’re putting radicals up here who are just unacceptable.”
Blair: So basically, you encourage them to hold sort of the feet to the fire and make sure that these people are put up in front of the American people. Yeah. One of the things I would like to talk about in addition to your work with the Biden nominations project where you’re basically looking at all five nominees is you have something called the Congressional Pork Map.
Jones: Yep, porkmap.com.
Blair: Great name, by the way. I love it. It’s got little pigs on it, which I think is just so great. It basically highlights wasteful government spending, right? So what is the most important thing for our listeners to know about government waste? And then, what are some of the most egregious examples, in your opinion, of government waste that we’ve seen?
Jones: Yeah, I think the most important, one of the most important things for them to know about earmarks is that they’re not the members of Congress calling balls and strikes on the best things in their district. I mean, even if they were, that’s not what the federal legislature should be doing.
But I think what your listeners need to really understand is these offices that are making these decisions on these million-dollar, $5 million, $10 million projects, they’re usually staffed. The average age of the staffer is 27 years old on these transportation projects. None of them have background in transportation.
What they do have background in is meeting with lobbyists for special interests in their district. And that’s how these things get up to the top of the stack. It’s not because this is the most important road in Paducah, Kentucky. It’s because this lobbyist knows the 26-year-old staffer who is assigned to do appropriations earmarks and they get it to the top of their stack or a wealthy donor in the district knows the congressmen. It’s like, “Hey, I really need you to help me out on these things,” and they get it to the top of the stack.
I think your listeners really need to be disabused of the notion that there’s some kind of merit process in this. It’s a bunch of young staffers and then lobbyists and wealthy donors making decisions about what gets requested.
Now, what ends up happening is you get these ridiculous wasteful projects. I can give you a couple of examples, but we’ve got thousands of them on Pork Map. You’ve got things like a sheep research institute in Idaho. That’s just nuts. We know enough about sheep. We’ve got a cranberry research station up in Wisconsin. I love Ocean Spray. I like cranberry cocktail. It’s great. That company does not need $600,000 to research cranberries.
One that really steams me is the sugar industry is getting $10 million in Louisiana. Look, the sugar industry’s one of the worst crony capitalist offenders. They’re getting subsidies on imports. They’re getting special advantages on land use. They’re one of the most well-heeled lobbying organizations in the country. They’re selling a lot of sugar. They don’t need $10 million from the federal government in a Republican district in Louisiana to research sugar.
Again, we’ve got a pretty good understanding of how sugar works. You put in a candy bar, it makes you fat. This is not rocket science here. So why are these really [being funded by the government]? I mean, they’re kind of goofy. And we snicker about them.
What becomes problematic is that each one of those has a congressman associated with them. And some of these congressmen might make the right decision on these bloated spending bills. But now they’ve been bought off with some earmark for an important constituency in their state. They might vote against a minibus or an omnibus spending bill, but now they can’t because if they vote against it, they know, everybody knows that they’re going to lose their earmark in the conference committee when the bills get worked out between the House and Senate. So they’re stuck voting for these terrible bills.
And look, this is not me like seeing, you know, black helicopters and crazy conspiracy theories. This is the reason these things exist. The Democrats have said, “We need to bring back earmarks because it helps us pass bills.” That’s exactly why we need to get rid of earmarks, because it helps us pass bad bills.
Blair: Right. So, given what we’ve talked about today, which is … President Biden’s personnel, and we’ve talked a little bit about spending, why should Americans be focused on these things? Why should we be focused on personnel policy and spending decisions from the Biden administration?
Jones: Yeah, no. So, personnel is policy. The people that execute the agenda are the people who draft the agenda. So it’s important who comes to Washington.
Remember, we saw this with the Trump administration, the people that you appoint make a difference. Mark Meadows better than ranked previously. You get better quality decision-making when you have better people in the administration. Same thing works with the Democrats. When they have really radical leftists, you’re going to get really radical policies.
That’s what you’re going to see with Kristen Clarke, the young lady I spoke about at DOJ, she’s going to go in and she’s got this anti-police attitude and she’s going to go in and be the one investigating the police, whether it’s in Louisville, or Portland, [or] Minneapolis. You’re going to get a really negative outcome when you have somebody who is hostile to police investigating police. So that’s why it really matters.
On the Pork Map on the spending stuff, people should be really paying attention because this is how we get $35 trillion in debt. It’s one wasteful spending bill after another. And you look back and you’re like, “How’d this all happen?” Well, it happened one bill at a time. It happened one earmark at time. It happened one bad vote at a time. So you need to have a zero tolerance approach to these. You need to say no to everyone as they come through.
Blair: I think that’s great advice. Now, we are running a little bit low on time, so I wanted to give this last question to learn more about your organization. How can our listeners learn more about you guys and how can they get connected?
Jones: Sure. So, the most straightforward way is to go to one of our two websites. American-af.org is the main site for the American Accountability Foundation. If you’re really interested on the noms, go to bidennoms.com.
But that’ll give you all the information on what we do. We’re an investigative organization. We’re digging into the details to help educate the American people. There’s a lot of good information.
There’s also Pork Map if you’re really excited about earmarks and you want to learn about those little piggies, there’s porkmap.com. But we put that information out there to educate the American people so that they know what’s going on inside their government and the people that are leading their government.
Blair: Excellent. Thank you so much. That was Tom Jones, co-founder of American Accountability Foundation, an educational and nonpartisan organization that conducts research into government oversight as well as fact-checking to hold government accountable. Thanks again for joining us, Tom.
Jones: Hey, thanks a lot.
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