Empower Oversight is a legal watchdog that has largely focused its efforts on issues that have dominated the conservative media landscape since the 2020 election.
Empower Oversight is a legal watchdog founded in 2021 by former Senate staffer Jason Foster. The organization aims to expose government fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and advocate for increased oversight of whistleblower protections and investigations. The organization is primarily run by former Senate staffers — many of whom worked under Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — former law enforcement professionals, and lawyers with a history of working with whistleblowers. Much of the senior leadership of Empower Oversight played roles in the ATF gunwalking scandal, which was seized upon by the conservative media and Tea Party wing of congress to attack the Obama administration in the early 2010s.
The organization has largely focused its efforts on issues that have dominated the conservative media landscape since the 2020 election, including the origins of the COVID-19 virus and the supposed politicization of the FBI and Justice Department, specifically related to the events of January 6, 2021 and the prosecution of participants in the Capitol riot.
Jason Foster founded Empower Oversight in April 2021 after serving as a high-ranking congressional staffer for over 20 years — serving Sen. Grassley for 14 of them — and working for consulting and lobbying firm DCI Group. He is also a member of the Federalist Society.
As a staffer for Sen. Grassley on the Judiciary and Finance committees, Foster assisted the Senator in investigations of the FBI and the ATF gunwalking scandal. Before working under Grassley, Foster worked as a legislative assistant for Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who aggressively pursued investigations into the Clinton White House related to the Whitewater controversy, specifically the conspiracy that the Clintons were involved in the murder of a former aide who had, in fact, died by suicide. The Whitewater theories eventually evolved into the “Clinton Body Count” conspiracy, a theory alleging the Clintons murdered numerous political enemies.
According to ProPublica, Foster was “the behind-the-scenes architect” of Senate Republicans’ efforts to discredit the FBI and attempts to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Under Foster’s purview, Grassley and other Senate Republicans openly speculated that the FBI leaked sensitive info, questioned the political biases of former FBI agents, cast doubt on the credibility of FBI surveillance of the Trump campaign, and called for a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton. Republicans also called for criminal charges against Christopher Steele, who compiled the Steele Dossier, a report investigating the Trump 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia, for research firm Fusion GPS. Fusion GPS employees complained their names were leaked in Foster’s investigation, possibly endangering them.
For his work in the Senate running interference in Trump-Russia investigations, Foster was twice encouraged to seek an inspector general position in the Trump administration. Experts claimed that the implicit job offers created the appearance of a conflict of interest, and should require a recusal from Foster for his work on matters related to the Trump-Russia investigations. Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that “on its face, this is unethical behavior.”
Even after leaving the Senate, Foster continued to attack the FBI for its investigation of potential connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. In a May 2020 op-ed, Foster claimed the charges against Michael Flynn, a Trump campaign official who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian officials, “never made sense.”
As part of their 2018 investigation into Foster, ProPublica uncovered a series of problematic blog posts. In his posts, Foster warned of an Islamic takeover of America, took issue with the fact that President Barack Obama’s middle name was Hussein, claimed that “homosexuality was akin to incest,” dismissed waterboarding as torture, and claimed liberal immigration policies were proof that Democrats wanted America to be “annexed.” Foster also pontificated that perhaps anti-Communist fearmonger Joseph McCarthy should have a better legacy. Foster claimed the posts were satire.
John Dodson is a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and a key player in the ATF gunwalking scandal along with Jason Foster. The gunwalking incident allowed guns to be trafficked, or “walked” to Mexico and let into the hands of criminals. According to an Inspector General report, Dodson was retaliated against for whistleblowing about the incident.
A Fortune investigation claimed that the ATF never intentionally let guns fall into the hands of cartels, and ATF agents interviewed for the piece claimed that Dodson’s gunwalking was an isolated incident performed independently and without authorization. Dodson sued Fortune for libel after it refused to retract the article.
Gary Aguirre is a former SEC investigator best known for spearheading the 2004 investigation into Pequot Capital Management for insider trading. Aguirre pushed to subpoena John Mack, a top Wall Street banker and a major contributor to George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Agurrie’s investigation into Mack was disrupted after a Morgan Stanely-affiliated lawyer called the SEC; in Agurrie’s words, the lawyer “wanted the investigation of John Mack to go away so he could become Morgan Stanley’s new CEO.” Aguirre was fired shortly thereafter, and the case on Pequot was closed. The SEC eventually settled with Aguirre for wrongful termination.
In addition to his role at Empower Oversight, Aguirre has represented and counseled firms seeking to enter the blockchain space. Empower Oversight has launched investigations into the SEC’s handling of cryptocurrency regulation.
Dean Zerbe is a former Grassley staffer who worked in the Senator’s office at the same time as Empower Oversight founder Jason Foster. Zerbe is also a partner at the law firm Zerbe, Miller, Fingeret, Frank & Jadav LP. Zerbe is “a well-known whistleblower attorney” and notably represented whistleblower Brad Birkenfield, who flagged illegal offshore banking activity by US citizens at Swiss bank UBS, as he pursued compensation under federal whistleblower reward laws.
Zerbe is a frequent contributor at Forbes where he primarily writes on tax law and the IRS. He also works at tax advisor firm alliantgroup.
Robert Heyer, Senior Advisor
Robert Heyer is a former Marine and Secret Service officer who testified in congressional hearings investigating the ATF gunwalking scandal. In addition to his role at Empower Oversight, Heyer is employed by numerous corporate security firms.
Peter Forcelli is a former NYPD and ATF officer who testified in the congressional hearings investigating the ATF gunwalking scandal. Forcelli also works at Amazon’s HQ2 in the Washington D.C. area.
Dan Meyer is a former intelligence official. Meyer was a whistleblower during his time in the Navy, assisting the Senate in investigating an explosion on the USS Iowa that killed 47 sailors.
Meyer is best known for being removed from his post as executive director of intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection in 2017, which Meyer claimed was retaliation after he raised concerns about failures to implement Obama-era whistleblower protections during the Trump administration. The intelligence community claimed Meyer had mishandled classified materials and was accused of workplace misconduct.
In his role at Empower Oversight, Meyer has called for the reinstatement of FBI Agent Steve Friend, who was suspended after he filed a whistleblower complaint against the FBI that claimed a “politicized” bureau exaggerating the threat of domestic terrorism and “[used] an ‘overzealous’ January 6 investigation to harass conservative Americans.”
Beth Levine is a former Grassley staffer and previously worked for a local Chamber of Commerce in Iowa. In addition to her role at Empower Oversight, she works for Maryland-based PR firm KO Public Affairs.
Support of Steve Friend
Empower Oversight has allied itself with Steve Friend, an FBI agent who was suspended after complaining about the “politicized” Bureau’s “overzealous” January 6 investigations and refusing to participate in SWAT raids against insurrection suspects. Empower Oversight has called for Friend’s immediate reinstatement and helped him submit formal whistleblower complaints to the Office of the Inspector General, Office of Special Counsel, and Congress. Friend was invited to privately testify before the House “weaponization” subcommittee, created by the 2023 Republican majority.
Friend has spread falsehoods about January 6, as well as other conspiracy theories and right-wing talking points. He is also frequently a featured guest on conservative extremist media and plans to publish a book on the “politicization” of the FBI this year. Empower Oversight President Jason Foster has publicly lamented the supposed politicization of the FBI after acting as “the behind-the-scenes architect” of Senate Republicans’ efforts to discredit the FBI and attempts to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to ProPublica.
Empower Oversight has undertaken research into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the “lab leak” theory positing that the virus emerged from a leak from a Wuhan lab. Specifically, Empower Oversight has aimed to prove that the Chinese government covered up said lab leak, a theory that experts previously discredited, though a recent Department of Energy report lent credence to the lab leak theory. Empower Oversight has:
Much of Empower Oversight’s work involves filing Freedom of Information Act requests to publicize documents and activity by the federal government. Some of the organization’s notable work includes:
Empower Oversight has engaged in additional advocacy, including:
Arguing that redactions in a FOIA request by conservative advocacy group Citizens United concerning the Biden Administration’s “attempt to federalize elections” was an example of “stonewalling.” The FOIA request concerned an executive order by the Biden administration to increase voting access, with special attention to voting access on Native American reservations.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ gunwalking scandal involves Operation Fast and Furious, launched by the agency’s Phoenix Field Division from 2009 to 2011. The operation advised legal firearms dealers to sell weapons to suspected arms traffickers for Mexican cartels, then tracking the guns and using them to secure criminal charges for ATF. Two of these weapons were linked to the 2010 murder of border patrol agent Brian Terry. ATF whistleblowers later approached Sen. Chuck Grassley about Operation Fast and Furious, spurring investigations by Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). These investigations became an early tool for the newly-ascendant Tea Party wing of congressional Republicans and the conservative media to attack the Obama administration.
As chief of investigations under Sen. Grassley on the Judicial Committee, Jason Foster played a notable role in Grassley’s pursuit of the scandal. According to ProPublica, Foster’s investigation was “marred by leaks of sensitive law enforcement information and allegations of partisan mischief” and “seemed to generate outlandish accusations, unsubstantiated by evidence but aired publicly.” Foster also spread the unsubstantiated theory that the Obama administration purposely sabotaged the program to undermine gun rights, leading Grassley to air the theory publicly. While an Office of the Inspector General report found no evidence of higher officials in Obama’s Department of Justice authorizing or approving of the program, the investigation still led to terminations at the ATF.
High-ranking members of Empower Oversight, including whistleblower advisory panel member John Dodson, director of investigations and research Peter Forcelli, and senior advisor Robert Heyer testified in congressional hearings investigating the ATF gunwalking scandal. John Dodson went on a publicity tour, going on major news programs and later writing a book about his experience as a whistleblower.
Sen. Chuck Grassley
Notable high-ranking officials at Empower Oversight including founder Jason Foster, senior advisor Dean Zerbe, and senior communications advisor Beth Levine previously served as staffers in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office. Foster in particular played an integral part in Grassley’s obstruction of Trump-Russia investigations as well as his investigation of the ATF gunwalking scandal, which was accused of serving partisan intentions and spreading unsubstantiated claims.
Empower Oversight has continued to work closely with Grassley, supporting his investigations into the Department of Veterans Affairs, Al Jazeera’s foreign agent status, and the origins of COVID-19, as well as his attempts to allow individual Americans to file oversight lawsuits on behalf of the federal government.
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