Bernhardt’s Interior Ignores Own Representations to Court Over Public Records Deadline

Requests Relate to Acting Secretary Bernhardt’s Communication with Former Clients, Special Interests

Ahead of Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s confirmation hearings, the Department of Interior has yet again failed to comply with federal open records laws for official communications between Bernhardt, his former clients, Interior officials and other special interests. The records are the focus of an ongoing lawsuit between Interior and watchdog groups Western Values Project and Democracy Forward.

“Over a year has elapsed since these public records requests were filed. Interior is clearly slow rolling the release of public documents related to Acting Secretary David Bernhardt’s involvement in decisions that impact his former clients and special interests,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director. “Interior would rather come up with excuses than comply with the law by releasing information that is relevant to Bernhardt’s nomination to lead the department.”

On July 30, 2018, on behalf of Western Values Project, Democracy Forward filed suit against the Interior Department for failing to release documents in response to ten of Western Values Project’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s official communications and other work. Interior entirely ignored a self-imposed deadline of December 31, 2018, to release a small portion of the materials and provide a status report. It took another two months for Interior to respond to the lapse, placing the blame for the missed deadline on the historic 35-day government shutdown.

Democracy Forward filed a status report with the court late last week on behalf of Western Values Project to address the woefully inadequate response by the Department of the Interior on FOIA requests that now date back well over a year. Western Values Project and Democracy Forward contend that there is a compelling public interest in the expedited release of these documents with Bernhardt’s nomination to Secretary of the Interior still pending.

“During the shutdown, the administration found plenty of time to work on Bernhardt’s pet projects like securing oil and gas leases,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Travis Annatoyn. “The Trump administration is willing to go to great lengths to shield Bernhardt from transparency, including ignoring its own statements to the court and blowing past a self-imposed deadlines for disclosing the documents it is required by law to produce.”

During the shutdown, Acting Secretary Bernhardt ordered employees back into the office to issue oil and gas leasing permits and the agency even proposed a new rule to limit public records requests.

The Department is currently declining to comment on any records production related to the suit. The court ordered the groups to meet and file a new joint status report by March 8, 2019.

Records and official communication requested by WVP:

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