MEMO: Interior Solicitor Nominee Daniel Jorjani

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the nomination of Acting Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, President Trump’s nominee to become the department’s Solicitor. Senators should oppose his nomination for Solicitor of the Department of the Interior. Jorjani is another historically conflicted swamp creature who cycled through the revolving door between being a departmental political appointee and working for special interests.

Jorjani has assumed the solicitor’s roles and responsibilities since he was hired by disgraced former Interior Secretary Zinke over two years ago. The Office of the Solicitor performs the “legal work” for Interior and provides “advice, counsel and legal representation to the Immediate Office of the Secretary, the Assistant Secretaries, and all other bureaus and offices overseen by the Secretary.”

Jorjani, a former ‘key employee’ for the oil billionaire Koch Brothers’ empire, has largely stayed out of the spotlight due to his unusual ‘acting’ role but has been the architect of some of the department’s most controversial legal decisions that have benefited industry and special interests and is leading the department’s efforts to limit transparency. Jorjani once said that ‘at the end of the day our job is to protect the Secretary.’

In addition to the controversial issues below, a full profile of Trump’s Interior Solicitor nominee Daniel Jorjani is available on the Western Values Project’s Department of Influence website.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act:

Back in December 2017, Acting Solicitor Jorjani issued a new legal opinion reinterpreting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Under his new favorable interpretation, oil, gas, and other industries would now go unpunished for the incidental killing of birds.

After an analysis of internal departmental documents and emails, it appears industry may have been involved or at least was aware the new opinion was forthcoming. The Director of Governmental Relations to the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), one of Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients, sent an email to Interior Deputy Director for the Office of External Affairs titled “MBTA,” asking if there was “Any word on the solicitor’s opinion yet?” Multiple meetings with oil and gas industry representatives and meetings with “MBTA” in the description appear on Jorjani’s publicly available calendar.

Jorjani’s emails reported on by Reveal News also found that the nominee had included then-Deputy Secretary Bernhardt in the process ‘since Day 1.’ The new interpretation would ostensibly benefit many of Bernhardt’s former oil and gas and extractive industry clients.

Transparency and Public Records:

Jorjani is leading Interior’s efforts to thwart transparency by restricting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Shortly before former Secretary Zinke resigned, he tasked Jorjani with overseeing the agency’s FOIA office. Rule revisions crafted by Jorjani were published in the Federal Register during the historic government shutdown.

The proposed rule, if approved, would severely restrict public records requests by allowing the agency to deny requests that it deems ‘burdensome’ or ‘vague.’ Yet, it is unclear how the agency would determine if a public request was ‘too burdensome’ or ‘too vague.’ As a result, if the proposed rule went into effect, Interior could arbitrarily deny requests. Ostensibly, the agency could deny any public records request, especially if the requested information is controversial, political, or reveal that special interests were allowed to shape major policy decisions.

Interior cited a backlog public records requests that were bogging down the agency and claimed that there was an uptick in requests by the FOIA community, which is mainly comprised of reporters, media organizations, watchdog groups and private citizens. But it is no secret that FOIA offices across the Federal Government have had to process increased public records due to the unprecedented level of scandals during Trump’s presidency. A bipartisan group of congressional leaders sent a letter to then-Acting Secretary Bernhardt urging him to reconsider the proposed rule “in the spirit of transparency and advancing the public’s right to know.”

Political Review of Public Document Requests:

Emails obtained by WVP revealed that the Interior Department and all sub-departments are now subject to a ‘next level’ FOIA review by the Solicitor’s Office since Jorjani was installed, and the review appears to be contributing to the backlog.

Interior had already 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. It is unclear in the directive if political appointees are allowed to make suggestions for redactions or request that information be withheld.

Instead of answering questions about Interior’s FOIA procedures and the proposed rule himself, Jorjani chose to back out of a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing examining transparency under the Trump administration only days before it was scheduled, sending a career employee who had only been in the department’s FOIA office for two months.

Beneficial Legal Opinion for Special Interests:

Jorjani issued a 19-page decision that reversed a previous departmental ruling that renewed copper and nickel mining leases for Twin Metals, a Chilean mining company, on the border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the most visited wilderness area in America, in Minnesota. Jorjani argued that the previous administration had ‘improperly interpreted the leases and is withdrawn’ and that the company had a ‘non-discretionary right to a third renewal.’ The decision could set a dangerous precedent for future public lands leasing challenges.

The foreign mining company’s parent company, Antofagasta, is owned by billionaire Andronico Luksic’s family, who happens to rent a home to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in Washington. Jorjani met with Antofagasta and the lobbying firm that represents Twin Metals in 2017 prior to issuing the favorable decision.

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