Ethics Office Investigates Whether Interior Dept. Officials Violated Transparency Laws

By: Coral Davenport, The New York Times, July 23, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department’s internal ethics watchdog has opened an investigation into whether top Trump appointees at the agency have violated federal open-record laws by withholding or delaying the release of public documents, emails and policy memos.

Click here to read CfA’s request for an investigation.

The investigation by the Interior Department’s Inspector General comes the same day as the separate introduction of a bipartisan Senate bill aimed at overhauling new public-records policies at the Environmental Protection Agency. Senators of both parties say the E.P.A.’s practices of reviewing and responding to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act have raised “serious concerns” about its transparency.

Several public watchdog groups and lawmakers contend that the two agencies — which together oversee aspects of the nation’s environmental policies, including clean-air and clean-water rules as well as conservation of public lands — have implemented new policies that have improperly limited the public’s ability to gain access to public records revealing how those policies are made.

Last year, the Interior Department implemented a new “Awareness Policy” regarding requests for information and public records under the Freedom of Information Act. The new policy requires career staff reviewing such requests to notify politically appointed officials if their names or email addresses appear in documents that have been designated to be released.

That policy, watchdog groups say, has allowed top officials appointed by President Trump to then withhold or delay the release of such information. “The upshot is that, in practice, the policy has morphed from a procedure that provides awareness to political appointees to one that allows political appointees to unlawfully withhold and delay documents,” said Travis Annatoyn, senior counsel at Democracy Forward, a watchdog group that had requested the Interior Department’s investigation.

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