Western Values Project (WVP) submitted a formal comment opposing the Interior Department’s recent proposal that would significantly reshape how the department handles Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The proposal, which some watchdog groups speculate may violate the Freedom of Information Act itself, would give Interior far more leeway in how it chooses to handle FOIA requests and may even allow the agency to deny requests that it deems “unreasonably burdensome.”
“With unprecedented levels of corruption at the Interior Department and special interest giveaways that are hurting our public lands and wildlife, we need more transparency, not less,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director. “Interior needs to respect our nation’s bedrock transparency law. This proposal is just another attempt by the Trump administration to deny the public, media and watchdog groups the ability to uncover malfeasance and corruption, making it harder to ensure Interior is working in the best interests of public lands, wildlife and the American people. Without a robust FOIA program to shine a light on them, Acting Secretary Bernhardt and his political cronies at Interior will continue to curry favor for special interests with impunity.”
WVP’s comment highlights how the change allows Interior to deny requests it deems “unreasonably burdensome,” which could result in the department significantly shirking its legal obligation to respond to FOIA requests. WVP’s comment also points out that, situated within the broader context of overt politicization of the Interior’s FOIA program, the proposed rule is especially troubling.
This proposed rule is just one move in a concerning pattern of anti-transparent conduct. In recent months Interior has also sought permission from the National Archives to permanently destroy a range of records relating to oil and gas leases sales, legal matters, mineral exploration permits, and fish and wildlife surveys, among other issues. Shortly before Zinke was forced to resign in disgrace, he installed political appointee and former Koch-employee Daniel Jorjani to oversee Interior’s FOIA program.
FOIA has proved an essential tool for exposing potential corruption at the Interior Department during the Trump administration. For instance, documents released in response to a FOIA request showed that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke secretly met with a private real estate officer– with whom Zinke’s family’s foundation was engaged in a sweetheart real estate deal– in his official office. This discovery resulted in one of the many investigations that led to Zinke’s eventual resignation. Originally, Zinke’s public calendar had omitted this crucial information.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, WVP has filed 192 FOIA requests to the Interior Department. Over 130 of those requests are still outstanding, including some that are 18 months old.
The public has until the end of the day on January 29th to submit comments on the proposal to the Interior Department.