Lawyers for the American Federation of Teachers on Friday condemned the Republican-led Covid-19 oversight panel’s request for their president’s phone records as an “improper” expansion of its investigation.
House lawmakers are investigating the deliberations around pandemic-spurred school closures and the CDC’s February 2021 school reopening guidance. On Thursday, House Coronavirus Pandemic Select Subcommittee Chair Brad Wenstrup penned a letter pressing AFT President Randi Weingarten to turn over phone and text records for any communication between the CDC, the Biden transition team and the Executive Office of the President.
“In requesting phone records between Ms. Weingarten and any member of the Executive Office of the President for the past 28 months, they underscore that your investigation has morphed into a fishing expedition that vastly exceeds your authority,” AFT Counsel Michael Bromwich wrote to the panel on Friday. “We will simply not accede to these unreasonable requests.”
He added that the teachers union would not comply with all of the panel’s requests.
The oversight panel honed in on Weingarten’s statements at a hearing last week where she said she had a direct phone number for outgoing CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. Weingarten, who leads one of the nation’s largest teachers unions, also told lawmakers that the Biden transition team had reached out to AFT for input on post-pandemic school reopening.
Wenstrup on Thursday night followed up by requesting that the union leader turn over documents and communication about Covid-19 between AFT and the Biden transition team between Nov. 3, 2020 and Jan. 20, 2021. The Ohio Republican is also seeking records of Weingarten’s communication with Walensky and the Executive Office of the President, since Inauguration Day 2021.
Bromwich said the panel’s requests “do not even pretend to be limited to the February 12, 2021 Operational Strategy, which was the original focus of your investigation.”
However, the teachers union said it will be responsive to the committee’s request for communications Weingarten and the AFT had with the Biden Transition Team regarding Covid-19, between Election Day 2020 and Inauguration Day, because it “appears to be within the scope of the Subcommittee’s mandate.”
But the union’s counsel said it would take longer than the May 11 due date Republicans have asked for.
In response to the panel’s request for transcribed interviews, Bromwich said the subcommittee did not reach out to schedule them after its initial letter. Instead, Weingarten agreed to testify last week and only heard of the request for a “single transcribed interview” after the hearing. Bromwich said they were working on setting up the interview when they received the letter.
Wenstrup’s letter included a request for interviews with five AFT staff members. While the Thursday letter did not threaten to subpoena the teachers union, Wenstrup reinforced that the panel is authorized to investigate the decision to close schools during the pandemic and its outcome.
“As for subpoenas — The information the Select Subcommittee requests is important for our investigation,” Wenstrup’s spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. “Whether a subpoena is issued or not, is up to Ms. Weingarten and the AFT.”
Republicans have long sparred with teachers unions, but the pandemic exacerbated tension as schools remained closed while school teachers pushed for more safety protocols to return to the classroom. GOP lawmakers have since characterized AFT and other teachers unions as having undue influence over the nation’s school reopening plan.
“The words ‘uncommon influence’ were never spoken by Ms. Weingarten, nor did she testify in any way that would support that characterization,” Bromwich wrote.
House Democrats on the subcommittee also pushed back on the records requests, criticizing the GOP for “abusing the resources of this Subcommittee for their own political gain.”
“Instead of working constructively to develop forward-looking policies that address learning loss and better prepare our schools for future pandemics,” a spokesperson for Democrats on the Select Subcommittee told POLITICO, “Select Subcommittee Republicans are sending absurd letters in the dead of night to harass Ms. Weingarten and her staff — pressing forward with their extreme, politically motivated investigations while pushing draconian cuts to programs that protect children’s health and education.”
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