Interior Secretary David Bernhardt failed to give a clear answer on questions from Senate committee members about a breaking story in CQ Roll Call about Interior political appointees restricting and interfering with open record requests that originated with the Western Values Project. The ‘political awareness review’ process instituted last year has caused the department to violate the law by regularly missing statutory deadlines for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, opening the department to potential legal challenges.
“Bernhardt and the Trump administration are once again flaunting laws that protect the public’s right to know. They have been caught red-handed blocking the release of public documents that could make them look bad. Bernhardt’s arrogant attempts to pass the buck today only highlight the culture of corruption run amok at his agency,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director.
Interior created a burdensome review process last year in which all Presidentially Appointed, Senate Confirmed, Non-Career Senior Executive and/or Schedule C employees would be notified of pending public records releases. The department also submitted a new rule during the historic government shutdown that would allow the department to deny requests that it deems ‘burdensome’ or ‘vague.’
The story revealed that the department’s former communications director reviewed responsive documents related to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s spouse Lolita Zinke. The initial review of documents found some 96 pages responsive to the request but, after challenging a career FOIA officer on what was deemed responsive, only 16 pages were ultimately released. Officials also warned that the review process was causing delays that would violate timelines required by law.
At the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Senator Leahy pressed Bernhardt about the department’s handling of public records requests and the bipartisan letter sent to him requesting that he reconsider and scrap the proposed rule. Bernhardt gave a typical nonanswer answer, claiming that he was considering whether to ‘scrap it, proceed with it or significantly modify it.’
Western Values Project (WVP) has filed and won numerous FOIA lawsuits against Interior in order to obtain critical information on public land and wildlife management issues and decisions, often to the chagrin of department officials. WVP currently has several pending lawsuits against Interior for public records requests that have gone unfulfilled, including requests related to Secretary David Bernhardt.