Coalition of Watchdog Groups Calls for IG Investigation of Interior Department’s FOIA Awareness Process

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 17, 2019

Contact: Bryan Dewan, bdewan@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group focused on public accountability, along with American Oversight, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, Democracy Forward, and Western Values Project, filed a complaint with the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Interior (Interior) calling for an investigation of the agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Awareness Process.  Political appointees at Interior appear to be using the Awareness Process to interfere with the release of documents in response to FOIA requests.

Click here to download a PDF of the complaint.

CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said, “Top Interior officials appear to be using the so-called Awareness Process to delay or prevent records from being released to the public.  Federal agencies are required by law to release government documents to individuals or organizations that request them.  The Inspector General should immediately open an investigation to determine whether the Interior Department’s Awareness Process is lawful.”

In May 2018, Interior adopted an Awareness Process for responding to FOIA requests.  The policy requires political appointees to be informed if their name or email address is mentioned in documents designated to be released to the public. Notably, the Awareness Policy does not grant any authority to political appointees to alter the release of government document, but it does allow them to weigh in on the substance of FOIA releases and potentially, to delay the production of records and withhold documents.

Recent news reports and publicly released correspondence between Interior officials and FOIA requesters indicate DOI is employing the Awareness Process to prevent documents from being released to the public in a timely manner.  For instance, on June 8, 2018, Western Values Project (WVP) sent a FOIA request to the National Park Service (NPS) requesting all emails between NPS Congressional Liaison Elaine Hackett and Lolita Zinke, the wife of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. NPS initially told WVP that the office had identified 96 pages of potentially responsive materials, but NPS eventually released just 16 pages of emails.

On May 22, 2019, Roll Call reported that the 80 missing pages were removed by Heather Swift, the communications director for Secretary Zinke.

In addition to Ms. Swift’s inappropriate involvement in FOIA requests, Interior appears to be relying on the Awareness Process to interfere with other WVP FOIA requests, in addition to requests by environmental groups, watchdog organizations, and media outlets.

Mr. Stevens continued, “The FOIA ensures that all Americans have access to government documents. The Inspector General should investigate to determine whether political appointees are intervening to prevent or delay the release of records to groups that have sought records to ensure Interior officials accountable for their actions.”

Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.