(The Hill) – House Republicans accused Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus of improperly releasing confidential information provided by landlord companies in a report on eviction rates and rental assistance programs, arguing that it undermines the integrity of Congress’s oversight activities.
A subcommittee report released last week detailed findings from a year-long investigation of eviction and rental assistance practices of four landlord companies during the COVID-19 pandemic: Pretium Partners, Invitation Homes, Ventron Management, and The Siegel Group.
It reveals that the landlords had nearly three times as many eviction cases than previously known, and included emails from one landlord that it said showed “potentially unlawful practices” in trying to prevent tenants from utilizing protection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium.
Democrats are rebutting the allegation that they improperly released information, saying they went through proper procedures and worked with the companies to address concerns about data they provided.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the ranking member on the Coronavirus select subcommittee, sent a letter to subcommittee chairman and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Tuesday raising issues with the handing of the information and procedure of releasing the report.
“Your reckless decision to include certain sensitive information in the report will have the unfortunate effect of chilling witnesses who may have otherwise desired to cooperate with the Committee, in this matter or any other,” Scalise and Comer said in the letter.
They charged that Democrats “affirmatively included sensitive information in the report to inflict additional harm on those companies that participated voluntarily in the Committee’s investigation.”
The letter from Scalise and Comer did not specify which information in the report was confidential.
Democrats on the subcommittee are dismissing the GOP charges, saying that they took steps to address concerns from the companies about release of information.
“The minority’s letter is highly misleading and only serves to underscore that Republicans continue to put corporate profits ahead of the interests of Americans who have struggled financially during a once-in-a-century public health crisis. Committee investigators followed longstanding committee practices in compiling this report and addressing legitimate confidentiality concerns while serving the public interest,” a select subcommittee spokesperson said in a statement.
Information was provided to the subcommittee by the companies last summer. Congressional committees are not bound by the same kind of case law that federal agencies are under the Freedom of Information Act in regards to releasing confidential commercial information, the Republican letter noted.
The companies, the report said, had high rates of filing for eviction orders and had policies to file for eviction even when tenants had filed for rental assistance and were waiting for aid.
It specifically singled out Siegel, which it said practiced “deceptive and potentially unlawful practices” that aimed to get tenants to move out following eviction notices without understanding their protection under the eviction moratorium.
It included messages from a Siegel executive directing eviction notices to be delivered after 5 p.m. on a Friday when government offices were closed, with hopes they would vacate over the weekend. An executive also suggested calling Child Protective Services on a tenant, having security knock on a tenant’s door at least twice at night, or replacing an air conditioning unit with a “nonworking AC.”
Clyburn referred some information from its findings to other government agencies for further investigation and possible enforcement action.
Scalise and Comer said that the subcommittee released the report without input from Republicans and without the subcommittee officially adopting the report. They also said that the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program distributed only a small portion of its funds to landlords and tenants.
“Majority staff decided to proceed with the public release of numerous materials that contain highly confidential and competitively sensitive information that typically would not be disclosed in connection with committee reports,” Scalise and Comer wrote. “The report found the business practices in question were entirely lawful in most cases, which further calls into question the decision to publicize such sensitive information.”