Judicial Watch filed its first lawsuit against Bill and Hillary Clinton shortly after its formation in 1994, and it pretty much never stopped. It is the plaintiff in more than 20 suits involving Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.
In between her extensive debate prep and her final, frenzied bid to raise money and win over voters, Hillary Clinton has had to carve out time to answer 25 detailed questions about her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
The questions came not from the FBI, which has closed its investigation into the issue, or from Congress, or even from a news outlet. They came from a nonprofit organization called Judicial Watch.
If the 2016 election has brought forward a new generation of Clinton antagonists — WikiLeaks, Breitbart, Russia — it has also reintroduced America to an old one.
Judicial Watch was one of the Clintons’ original critics, a charter member of what Hillary Clinton famously called a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to destroy her and her husband by seizing on any potential scandal.
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The organization filed its first lawsuit against Bill and Hillary Clinton shortly after its formation in 1994, and it pretty much never stopped. It is the plaintiff in more than 20 suits involving Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.
“People always used to say to me, ‘What are you going to do when the Clintons leave?’ ” Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, said in an interview. “Well, the Clintons never really left.”
Neither has Judicial Watch, the Clinton adversary that has probably done more than any other individual or organization to create the narrative that Clinton is still battling: that she is untrustworthy.
It is a narrative that her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, has tried to exploit at every turn, whether he was labeling her “Crooked Hillary,” saying there was something “very fishy” about the suicide of her former law partner, Vincent Foster Jr., or suggesting that she might be concealing serious health problems.
Judicial Watch’s strategy is simple: Carpet-bomb the federal courts with Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The vast majority are dismissed.
But Judicial Watch caught a break last year, when revelations about Clinton’s private email server prompted two judges to reopen two of the group’s cases connected to her tenure as secretary of state.
Litigiousness is in the organization’s DNA: Its founder, Larry Klayman, once sued his mother. Klayman has described himself as a conservative Ralph Nader, but during Bill Clinton’s presidency, he often behaved more like a self-appointed Kenneth Starr, papering Washington with subpoenas related to every would-be Clinton scandal.
His departure from the organization in 2003 was accompanied, unsurprisingly, by litigation: Klayman accused the organization, and his successor, Fitton, of “fraud, disparagement, defamation, false advertising and other egregious acts.”
Fitton responded that the accusations were “full of lies and distortions.” The suit is still in the courts.
Since he took over in 2003, Fitton has sought mainstream respectability for the organization.
Judicial Watch describes itself as a “nonpartisan educational foundation,” but Fitton said it is also a media organization. “We’re filling multiple roles here in a Washington where the traditional vehicles for government accountability have broken down,” he said.
Last year, he nominated Judicial Watch for three Pulitzer Prizes. He was told that because Judicial Watch was an advocacy group, it did not meet the Pulitzer committee’s eligibility criteria, a ruling he attributed to liberal bias.
If Fitton is seen as less flamboyant than his predecessor, he has been no less dogged in his pursuit of Hillary Clinton. In 2009, Judicial Watch sued to prevent her from becoming secretary of state, claiming that an obscure clause in the Constitution prevented former members of Congress who voted to increase the salary of a government position from being appointed to that position.
For that matter, Judicial Watch is still suing the government to obtain a draft of the indictment against Hillary Clinton that federal prosecutors prepared in 1998, when they were considering bringing charges against her in the Whitewater investigation.
“I think to say that they are not partisan would not be accurate,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Look at the way that they have dealt with the Clintons. It seems as if they’ve been out to do them harm.”
According to Fitton, however, Judicial Watch’s persistence has been rewarded. “The documents we have uncovered in the last year or so are gobsmacking in terms of what they say about what Clinton was up to, the depths of her criminality,” he said.
Judicial Watch is a polarizing group, even among advocates for greater government transparency. Critics accuse it of weaponizing the Freedom of Information Act for political purposes. They argue that its unending barrage of lawsuits does more harm than good by draining federal resources, tying up the courts and wasting public servants’ time.
The Freedom of Information Act “is a legitimate tool for government transparency, but it’s possible to abuse it,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “There is a question about whether they are enriching or distorting political discourse.”
The group’s defenders argue that its success in bringing to light thousands of buried emails speaks for itself, and that people can ignore the organization’s spin and make their own decisions about what the records mean.
“They are obviously not just going on fishing expeditions, because they are producing documents that are resulting in stories and public debates,” said Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight.
Fitton, the Judicial Watch president, said his group fought just as hard for transparency during George W. Bush’s presidency. Notably, it teamed with the Sierra Club in an unsuccessful effort to obtain the records of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy task force.
The group’s lawyers were given permission to depose several of her senior aides from her time at the State Department. What is more, Clinton herself will have to answer 25 detailed questions about her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
The questions, some with multiple parts, ask her to explain her rationale for using the private server and her reaction to warnings about the potential for security breaches, among other things. Her answers, to be provided via written testimony to the court, are due by Thursday.
Just getting this far has represented a victory for Judicial Watch, which operates out of a nondescript office building in the shadow of the Capitol.
Suing the government, repeatedly, is an expensive proposition; Judicial Watch has an annual budget of about $35 million that pays for close to 50 employees, a mix of lawyers, investigators and fundraisers. Fitton says the group receives donations from nearly 400,000 individuals and institutions every year.
One of its biggest funders, according to public filings, is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, created by the banking heir Richard Mellon Scaife, who died in 2014. In the 1990s, Scaife was one of the leading financiers of the right-wing effort to bring down the Clintons, bankrolling conservative think tanks and publications and Judicial Watch.
Judicial Watch’s claims of nonpartisanship will be tested if Republicans win the White House next month. For now, anyway, Trump seems safe from the group’s scrutiny.
As for Clinton, she can expect to remain in the group’s sights whether she wins or loses. “Everyone wants to move on,” Fitton said. “We don’t move on.”