Details of ex-railroad chief’s side hustle revealed

The former top federal railroad regulator’s side gig as a public relations consultant for a Mississippi sheriff was more extensive than previously revealed, records obtained by POLITICO show.

Heath Hall apparently returned reporters’ phone calls, fielded a complaint about a bad link on a jail website and weighed in on coverage of a dog-fighting arrest during the nearly seven months he was the de facto head of the Federal Railroad Administration, according to emails provided by the government of Madison County, Miss. He also communicated with county officials about his firm’s PR work and regularly submitted invoices for its services — sending one such email just hours after a fatal Amtrak crash in Washington state.

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Hall took a leave of absence from the agency in January due to what the agency said was a family emergency, three months after telling Sheriff Randy Tucker by email that “I am just not happy here” and that the “bottom line is that I am a Mississippi boy.” He resigned from DOT Feb. 10 after POLITICO raised questions about whether he had continued running his PR business on the side.

Days later, Hall told his hometown newspaper that he hadn’t done any work for the sheriff while running the railroad agency — “not one second of one day, period.”

“I did not work one single time on anything related to my clients,” Hall told the Madison County Journal in a story published Feb. 14. “It’s really hard to moonlight when you’re working 12-14 hours a day.”

Hall told the Clarion Ledger that he resigned partly because “I did not not feel that the department should have to go through this POLITICO story. Absolutely none of it is true, absolutely guaranteed.”

Hall has not responded to POLITICO’s requests to discuss his tenure as acting administrator at the FRA, a $1.7 billion-a-year agency that lacked a permanent leader for more than a year while dealing with a rising trend of rail-related deaths. President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency, former Conrail President Ron Batory, was sworn in as administrator Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the Department of Transportation defended its decision to tap Hall for the FRA post last year, citing his past work as director of public affairs for former Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice and an internship he had at the railroad agency that appears to have occurred during the George H.W. Bush administration.

“Mr. Hall was required to comply with all required federal ethics and legal requirements,” a DOT spokesperson said. The department did not offer any reaction specifically to the newly released emails, which POLITICO obtained through a public records request to Madison County, Miss.

Besides his FRA internship, Hall had also worked early in his career for the deputy secretary’s office at DOT and served as an intern in the White House Office of Political Affairs during the first Bush administration, according to his now-defunct FRA bio page. He has referred to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who also worked at DOT during Bush’s presidency, as his former boss.

Hall, who runs a PR and consulting firm called Strategic Marketing Group LLC in Madison, pledged in his federal financial disclosure form last year that the business “will remain dormant during Federal service.” State records indicate his wife, Wendy, legally took over from him as the company’s “Manager, Member, President” in May.

But the new documents show that his involvement with the firm and its Mississippi clients didn’t end after he was sworn in as FRA’s deputy administrator on June 23. He was quickly named acting administrator; Batory wasn’t nominated for the post until July 10.

On June 30, a Friday morning, Hall responded swiftly after a Madison County official asked to correct a link on the county’s jail handbook site, one email shows. Hall dispatched web designer Addison Hall to handle the matter but continued participating in an email chain on the issue throughout the afternoon.

On Tuesday, Aug. 22, a county official forwarded Hall a voicemail from someone at Jackson, Miss., television station WAPT. Within a couple hours, Hall responded: “I got him.”

The next day, Hall responded in the evening to emails from Tucker’s administrative assistant about an inquiry from that station. He wrote that he had “returned calls to all of the stations with the exception of WAPT. The Sheriff has suggested in the past not to call him back because he always gets the stories wrong so I do not call him back.”

Hall also communicated with the sheriff during an email exchange that began on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 25, about work he said he was doing related to an advertisement for the sheriff. “By the way, I want to come home,” Hall wrote, and proceeded to ask Tucker for advice on whether he should leave Washington.

An Oct. 24 email sent by Sandra Buckley, a public relations colleague brought on to help Hall’s PR company with Tucker’s account, said Hall was “managing this project.”

The evening of Tuesday, Nov. 7, Hall sent the sheriff an email regarding Madison County deputies’ arrests of four men in an alleged dog-fighting ring, noting “lots of good media on this.”

Hall also regularly emailed county officials about invoices for his firm’s services. He sent one such invoice the evening of Dec. 18, a few hours after an Amtrak train derailed in Washington state, killing three people and injuring dozens, in an accident that called attention to the slow progress in implementing a congressionally mandated crash prevention technology.

“Jeremy: Just getting it to you a little early,” he wrote. “Merry Christmas.”

Beyond the emails, as POLITICO has previously reported, Hall’s name appeared as a spokesman for the sheriff in at least two Mississippi media reports in August, and a former FRA employee said she had fielded at least three requests from a Mississippi television journalist seeking to speak with Hall last summer. The Madison County Journal reported this month that it also received a press release from him in July, something he told the newspaper he did not remember.

Hall also dealt with at least one Madison County official in his capacity as the railroad agency’s acting administrator on the rising problem of deadly accidents at rail crossings. In September, he sent an email from his FRA account to David Bishop, a member of the county’s elected board of supervisors, and to another FRA employee, whom he thanked for a readout of FRA’s contacts with Bishop and state and railroad officials related to a fatal May 2016 accident at a railroad crossing in Mississippi.

He later referred to that accident, which killed three people, during a Sept. 19 speech to the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ rail committee in Oakland, Calif., according to prepared remarks posted on FRA’s website. He noted that his “former crisis public relations firm was called out” to the crash, adding: “It was at that moment that I decided that I was going to lend my voice in reversing this trend.”

Still, he soon made it clear he was ready to return to Mississippi.

“I just got back into Mississippi yesterday — so very happy to be home,” he wrote to Tucker’s deputy on Jan. 22, attaching another invoice.

He told the Madison County Journal that “I will not miss Washington D.C.”

“It is a ‘gotcha’ community that takes great faith in ruining someone’s reputation and they do it as a sport,” he said.

Gowdy seeks answers on allegations of excessive spending, retaliation at HUD

Try Gowdy is pictured. | Getty Images

Rep. Trey Gowdy asked HUD Secretary Ben Carson for all papers “referring or relating to redecorating, furnishing, or equipping your office since January 1, 2017.” | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Wednesday requested that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson turn over all documents and communications pertaining to allegations by a high-ranking civil servant that she was the target of reprisals after sounding the alarm on agency spending.

“To help the Committee determine whether HUD adhered to the applicable spending limitations while redecorating your office, please provide… [a]ll documents and communications referring or relating to redecorating, furnishing, or equipping your office since January 1, 2017,” Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, wrote to Carson, according to excerpts of the letter released Wednesday.

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The chairman added: “In addition, please arrange to brief the Committee on this matter after producing the requested documents and information.”

HUD official Helen Foster, in a sworn complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, raised concerns over spending at the department, including Carson’s plans for redecorating.

According to Foster’s lawyers, she was demoted without warning or explanation in July 2017, less than a year after being promoted to the role of chief administrative officer. In her position, Foster oversaw spending and office space at HUD.

In January 2017, Foster’s legal team says, she was instructed to “find money” for redecorating after Carson’s wife sought funds to purchase furniture. The amount was said to have exceeded the $5,000 legal limit, prompting Foster to voice her objection.

Craig Clemmensen, the designated acting secretary at the time, replied that the $5,000 “will not even buy a decent chair,” according to the complaint.

Foster also expressed concerns over the more than $10 million departmental shortfalls that took place under her predecessor at HUD.

Department officials reportedly also spent $31,000 on a new dining set for Carson’s office in late 2017.

Kushner shifts to 2020 campaign talk amid clearance downgrade

Jared Kushner is pictured. | Getty Images

For more than a year, Jared Kushner has snuffed out any whiff of insurrection against him, outlasting a stream of White House aides. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The presidential son-in-law and adviser was at work as usual on Wednesday, despite a series of blows to his role in the White House.

Jared Kushner showed up for work at the White House on Wednesday and acted like everything was normal.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser attended the daily senior staff meeting, where he launched into a discussion about Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, according to an administration official.

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He was in the meeting despite his recent security clearance downgrade, first reported Tuesday by POLITICO, and a Washington Post story that detailed discussions among foreign officials about using Kushner’s tangled business relationships to manipulate him.

For more than a year, Jared Kushner has snuffed out any whiff of insurrection against him, outlasting a stream of White House aides – from former chief strategist Steve Bannon to former chief of staff Reince Priebus – who had tried to take him down or minimize his role in his father-in-law’s administration.

Now, he is in an increasingly tenuous position, restricted in his ability to view information and limited in his duties – and there is growing speculation about his future in the White House.

The resignation of White House communications director Hope Hicks, a longtime aide who has served as a trusted confidant to both Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump as well as to the president, is another blow to the couple, whose easy access to the Oval Office has been curtailed by chief of staff John Kelly.

Amid the furor, Trump’s closest allies have begun defending Kushner, insisting that his clearance downgrade won’t prevent him from doing his job.

“I think if the president feels like Jared is able and loyal and willing, he absolutely should keep him on the team and I encourage Jared to stay just as long as he has the energy and the dedication to serve,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, who regularly talks to the president.

But those in the administration who have long resented Kushner are quietly experiencing some schadenfreude over the firestorm.

“Let’s not forget the early, eye-rolling days when the national security and foreign policy trio was of Reince, Bannon, and Jared who have now been replaced by Kelly, McMaster, Mattis, and Tillerson,” an administration official told POLITICO. “It’s been a long time since anyone considered someone whose first title does not begin with secretary, general, or director as an A-list player with respect to national security and foreign policy.”

Kushner’s recent focus on the 2020 election has led some in the White House to wonder whether he’ll eventually transition out of the West Wing to become an adviser to his father-in-law’s reelection bid. Trump’s newly announced campaign manager, Brad Parscale, is a close ally of Kushner’s and the two men speak on the phone regularly.

Kushner has seen his close circle of allies shrink in recent weeks with the departure of Reed Cordish, a staffer in Kushner’s Office of American Innovation, and the decision by spokesman Josh Raffel, a key defender of both Kushner and his wife, to leave the administration in the coming months.

People close to Kushner do not expect him to make a sudden departure – unless more damaging news stories make his continued presence in the White House untenable. If he does leave, he’s expected to do so on his own terms, administration officials said.

Even before this week, Kushner had become a regular subject of gossip in the White House as Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election heats up. For weeks, some aides have been reluctant to speak freely in front of Kushner because they see him as a potential target in Mueller probe, according to the administration official.

Kushner’s moment under the microscope has coincided with White House chief of staff John Kelly’s rise. Since joining the White House in July, Kelly has sought to limit access to Trump and eliminate any perceived special treatment that the president might give to favored aides.

Kelly has sometimes disagreed with Kushner while Kushner, for his part, has sometimes resisted Kelly’s efforts to limit his access. But the White House insists that the two men have a good relationship, pointing to an unusual statement Kelly issued last week voicing his confidence in Kushner.

“As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico,” Kelly said in the statement.

A White House spokesman declined to comment further.

While administration officials insist the back-stabbing that characterized Trump’s first few months in office has died down, they acknowledge that powerful allies are essential to surviving in this administration.

As a result, Kelly is looking shore up his power base in the White House.

The retired Marine general has started looking outside the White House for a principal deputy chief of staff, a position he hasn’t been able to fill since his former No. 2, Kirstjen Nielsen, was confirmed to replace him as Secretary of Homeland Security in December, according to two people familiar with his plans.

Most of the major figures in the Trump White House came to the West Wing surrounded by loyalists — Bannon with like-minded colleagues from Breitbart, Priebus with a team from the Republican National Committee, and Kushner and Ivanka Trump with their own communications aide. Kelly arrived with a much smaller circle, comprised principally of Nielsen and his former military aide Zach Fuentes, and he has struggled to build it back up since Nielsen’s departure in early December.

Kelly’s decision to look outside the White House for a deputy comes after a failed attempt to replace her with somebody already serving in the administration: The retired Marine general told associates he was disappointed in the performance of Jim Carroll, an administration lawyer who joined the West Wing as deputy chief of staff in December. The White House nominated Carroll as national drug czar earlier this month.

The churn in Kelly’s office is a reflection of two persistent challenges for the Trump administration: retaining the talent it has and replacing valued aides as they depart or move to fill more senior positions.

The chief-of-staff is also expected to look for a deputy chief-of-staff for policy, a step toward reinstating a role that’s been key in previous White Houses but that the Trump administration has never filled. The former White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, who left the administration earlier this month after two ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse, was at one point a candidate for that position.

Nielsen served in the White House as Kelly’s no-nonsense enforcer and was integral to his attempt to impose discipline on the unruly White House that he inherited.

Without trusted deputies, he has had more difficulty managing the White House. The Porter scandal made clear that the order he has brought to the White House has not been cost-free, as many presidential aides were quick to use it as an opportunity to undermine him.

Even so, he has succeeded where others, including Bannon and Priebus, failed — in going up against Jared Kushner and, at least for now, winning.

Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.

Democrat David Baria enters Senate race in Mississippi

David Baria is pictured. | AP Photo

David Baria, the state house minority leader, qualified for the ballot on Wednesday, after submitting the necessary paperwork. | Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Republicans have two candidates running against each other for Senate in Mississippi. Now Democrats have one to face whoever emerges.

David Baria, the state house minority leader, qualified for the ballot on Wednesday, after submitting the necessary paperwork.

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“I want to give voters a true choice, and I plan to spend the campaign listening to voters and working hard to earn their trust,” Baria said.

Baria got into the race the day after Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi state senator, announced a primary challenge to incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker, and after Brandon Presley, a state public service commissioner whom national Democrats had been eyeing for the race, reiterated that he wouldn’t run.

The day after Doug Jones won in Alabama in December, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) pledged to have a candidate in every race. Mississippi had been the only remaining hole for Democrats.

There has been some talk locally and in Washington about other Democrats potentially jumping in, but they’re running out of time: The filing deadline is Thursday.

Baria said he missed a call from Van Hollen, and so far has not heard from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The DSCC did not comment on Baria’s entry into the race.