A Justice Department lawyer apologized to a federal judge on Wednesday after President Donald Trump’s commission on voter fraud failed to disclose materials ahead of its first meeting in July, and conceded the panel had gotten off to a “chaotic start.”
The apology came during a U.S. District Court hearing Washington in a lawsuit that challenges the compliance with transparency laws by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The panel, established by Trump in May, met for the first time on July 19. But before the session, it failed to publicly disclose materials that its members would present and discuss.
Those documents included prepared opening statements, a Heritage Foundation study on alleged incidents of voter fraud, a voting survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and an article from the Yale Law & Policy Review. The commission did post the documents after the meeting.
In previous filings responding to the lawsuit, a commission staffer had pledged to post all relevant documents ahead of the commission’s first meeting. At Wednesday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly termed it “incredible” that the panel determined its pledge did not apply to documents that individual commission members had prepared but hadn’t shown to their colleagues.
Elizabeth Shapiro, a DOJ lawyer, said commission staff apologized for the error, which she said was unintentional.
“It was truly an honest misunderstanding on the part of the commission with respect to its obligations to share information,” she told Kollar-Kotelly, according to The Washington Post. “It was not an attempt to hide anything. [The commission] fully intends to be as transparent as possible … I wanted to convey our apologies and our sincere regret for that.”
Shapiro also told Kollar-Kotelly that the commission had gotten off to a “chaotic start,” according to the Post. Planning for the panel’s first meeting had been disorganized and officials only learned that Trump would speak at it shortly before the session began.
“There was a little bit of unknown and a little bit of disorganization in terms of how the meeting would happen,” she said.
Shapiro assured the judge that panel officials had emailed commissioners Tuesday reminding them of their disclosure obligations, the Post reported. In a letter dated Wednesday, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the commission’s vice chair, asked commissioners to submit materials in advance and no later than 10 a.m. the day before the panel’s next meeting on Sept. 12 to ensure the documents could be shared posted on the commission’s website and shared with the public.
“Consistent with that goal, the Commission has represented in ongoing litigation that materials that you intend to share with your fellow Commission members will be shared with the public in advance of meetings, where possible,” Kobach wrote. “I do not want to undermine our Commission’s discussion or limit the free flow of information, and I understand unexpected issues could arise and members could desire to introduce other documents at the meeting. I would ask that other documents be shared at the meeting only under extraordinary circumstances that could not have been foreseen with sufficient time to send them to Commission staff by the deadline.”
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which brought the lawsuit against the commission, said the statements from Shapiro were stunning.
“It was remarkable to see this Justice Department falling on its sword and apologizing profusely to the court for significant errors made in how this commission has been handled so far,” she told HuffPost. “A commission of this nature, one that is drawing intense national interest, should be one where we see full transparency. That’s not what we’re seeing here.”
Kollar-Kotelly ordered the commission to produce an index of all the documents and communications related to its work ― even if they were sent from a personal email or phone number ― to the court and offer an explanation for any materials that aren’t being disclosed to the public.
The commission has been controversial since its start. Critics charge it has no reason to exist given the lack of evidence of anything close to widespread voter fraud in U.S. elections. The panel also set off alarm bells with its request for “publicly available voter-roll data” from all states and the District of Columbia. In the face of differing interpretations about what that covered, some states have refused to comply and some people have canceled their voter registrations in protest.
The commission’s Sept. 12 meeting will be in Manchester, New Hampshire.
This story has been updated with details from Kris Kobach’s letter to commissioners.