Today, Western Values Project released another instance of an Interior political appointee removing public documents from a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Interior’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, already confirmed an audit and investigation review into the political awareness ‘review’ process.
“We’ve documented a fundamental affront to America’s bedrock transparency law by political appointees at the Interior Department in an attempt to keep the public in the dark about decisions being carried out under former mega-lobbyist turned-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt,” said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger. “The more documents we review, the more we learn how Bernhardt’s swamp is potentially violating transparency laws to cover up corruption. What are Bernhardt and Interior trying to hide?”
Western Values Project (WVP) first identified Interior’s political awareness ‘review’ process of public document requests in March and submitted a series of FOIA requests to determine if previous requests had been subjected to the newly established ‘review’ process.
Responsive public documents released by the U.S. Geological Survey related to the ‘review’ process revealed that Interior political appointee Hubbel Relat had several pages removed from previously released public records, in addition to delaying its release by over a month. Relat, now a senior counselor at Interior, was working as an advisor to acting Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani at the time. Jorjani, himself, has faced accusations of ethical misconduct.
The pages removed by Relat withheld the names of Interior’s ‘Energy Liaison Group’ also known as the Executive Committee on Expedited Permitting, which was created in October 2017 by secretarial order. The attendees of a December 2017 conference call that was said to be the ‘Energy Liaison Group’ included Vincent DeVito, Dan Jorjani, Casey Hammond, James Schindler, Landon Davis, Todd Willens, Scott Angelle, Blake Deeley, Stephen Wackowski, Josh Campbell, Tim Spisak, Billy Dove, Kate MacGregor, Mike Nedd, Jason Funes, Chris Stolte, and Downey Magallanes.
Nearly all of the meeting’s attendees have deep ties to the coal, oil and gas industry or affiliated organizations and would have been subject to Trump’s ethics order which prohibited them from working on ‘particular matters’ related to their former employers at the time of the meeting.
Within a few months of the meeting — which included Mike Nedd, Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Operations Director — then-acting BLM director Brian Steed issued an oil and gas leasing reform memo. It eliminated Master Leasing Plans, reduced the parcel protest period from 30 days to 10 days and created a 60-day deadline for the resolution of protests, and changed “will” provide for public participation to “may” provide for public participation during the environmental review process.
The order limiting public participation was ultimately resoundingly rejected by a federal judge, but these major revisions and others related to public lands leasing and permitting processes have been implemented at Interior. The extent of the involvement of the conflicted members of the Executive Committee on Expedited Permitting on leasing revisions is unknown.
Background and Documentation:
Hubbel Relat Got Four Pages Removed From A WVP FOIA To USGS, And Delayed The Production Release By More Than A Month
The USGS Had Compiled All Responsive Documents To WVP’s FOIA On February 1, 2019. During The Political Awareness Review, Which Hubbel Relat Lead, USGS Agreed To Remove Four Pages From The Release. The Political Review Led To A Production Delay Of 38 Days, As WVP Did Not Receive The Documents Until March 11, 2019.
On February 1, 2019, the USGS FOIA Office sent around 92 pages of records responsive to Western Values Project FOIA USGS-2018-00114 for Political Awareness Review. [FOIA documents responsive to USGS-2019-00171, page 4]
Despite not being on the original email, Hubbel Relat responded the same day, saying “Let’s plan on discussing next week.” After some back-and-forth between the USGS FOIA officer and Relat, they schedule a phone call to discuss the production, to which the USGS FOIA officer responded on February 6, 2019, saying “I agree with your opinion that the 92-page PDF does not contain records directly responsive to the amended request (all communications about the resignation of Murray Hitzman and the retirement of Larry Meinert), it does contain records responsive to the original request. We believe the records peripherally respond to the general nature of the amended request because they provide more background information that led Murray Hitzman’s resignation and Larry Meinert’s retirement, not specifically about the actual resignation/retirement.” [FOIA documents responsive to USGS-2019-00171, page 3]
On March 3, 2019, the USGS FOIA officer wrote to Hubbel Relat and Cindy Carafo, saying “I think that the 89 pages of the records respond to the second portion of the original request and the clarification that we received on 4/17 /18. I do not believe that pages 20-23 are responsive and we can remove them.” [FOIA documents responsive to USGS-2019-00171, page 142]
On January 31, 2019, the USGS FOIA officer notified Western Values Project that this FOIA would need to go through the Political Awareness Review “with the DOI senior officials to review the records associated with your request. After the DOI completes their review, we will respond to you. We anticipate that we will complete a final response to you by COB February 15, 2019. However, this date is subject to change as it is possible the DOI senior officials may request additional time for review, or due to lapse in appropriations.” [“FOIA USGS 2018-00114 – Status Update” email, 01/31/19]
Western Values Project was not provided these responsive records until March 11, 2019. [“FOIA USGS 2018-00114 – Final Response” email, 03/11/19]
On March 4, 2019, USGS FOIA Officer Brian May wrote to Hubbel Relat, “I spoke with Cindy on 2/27/19 and she suggested that I prepare a spreadsheet (attached) listing the scope of the request and the breakdown of pages that respond to the request. I think that the 89 pages of the records respond to the second portion of the original request and the clarification that we received on 4/17 /18. I do not believe that pages 20-23 are responsive and we can remove them.” [FOIA documents responsive to USGS-2019-00171, page 142]
The Pages Hubbel Relat Prevented USGS From Sending WVP Involved The “Executive Committee For Expedited Permitting.”
The four pages that Hubbel Relat got exempted from WVP FOIA had to deal with a December 2017 conference call for the Zinke-ordered “Executive Committee for Expedited Permitting,” which was also referred to as the “Energy Liaisons Group.” The call involved Vincent DeVito, Daniel Jorjani, Casey Hammond, James Schindler, Landon Davis, Todd Willens, Scott Angelle, Blake Deeley, Stephen Wackowski, Josh Campbell, Tim Spisak, Billy Dove, Kate MacGregor, Mike Nedd, Jason Funes, Chris Stolte, and Downey Magallanes. [FOIA documents responsive to USGS-2019-00171, pages 67-70]