Inspector General Confirms Investigation as Groups Uncover More Evidence of Political Interference at Interior

Improper ‘Political Review Process’ Has Led to Political Coverup

Western Values Project (WVP), a Montana-based nonprofit conservation group, and Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group focused on public accountability, have uncovered additional evidence of political appointees interfering with public records at the Department of Interior, leading to requests being delayed or withheld – in a potential violation of open records laws. In response, the groups submitted the new information to Interior’s Acting Inspector General as part of a request for an investigation into Interior’s troubling practices. In response to the groups’ request, the Inspector General confirmed an investigation into the practice will begin.

Click here to download a PDF of the new CfA/WVP letter.

Click here to download a PDF of the Office of Inspector General response letter.

“Secretary Bernhardt and Trump’s operatives at Interior are using their political power to withhold information from the public about decisions that impact America’s outdoor heritage. It appears there’s a political cover-up at Interior to hide the culture of corruption that has run amok under Trump and Bernhardt,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director. “The Interior’s Inspector General has an invaluable role to play, holding the department accountable – we urge the office to review this issue quickly and thoroughly.”

“The Freedom of Information Act is America’s bedrock transparency law, allowing the public, media, and watchdog organizations to review public documents about decisions made by our government. There is significant evidence demonstrating political interference by Interior political appointees which is an affront to basic transparency and the requirements of the law,” said Daniel Stevens, Campaign for Accountability Executive Director.

In June, Western Values Project and Campaign for Accountability along with three other watchdog groups filed a complaint with Interior’s Office of Inspector General calling for an investigation of the political awareness review process of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests at the department. Earthjustice also filed a request for an investigation.

Click here to read the June 2019 IG complaint.

New research by WVP, cited in the letter submitted to the Inspector General, found several other cases of information being withheld or delayed by Interior’s political appointees during the review process, including:

– Emails between Interior officials indicated that a career FOIA official identified 487 pages of responsive material to be released but only 469 pages of records were released to WVP. The political intervention appears to have resulted in the removal of 18 pages that should have been released to WVP.

– Another FOIA response was delayed at least two weeks due to the awareness review by political appointees. An Interior FOIA officer inadvertently revealed the reason for the delayed response, writing “As I understand the current policy, OS FOIA must receive your affirmative clearance prior to release of material related to the Secretary.”

– An Interior attorney within the Office of the Solicitor sent two of the political appointees a heavily redacted email with the subject line “HOLD – Awareness Review for Active Litigation” about a WVP request. Interior appears to have completely withheld the document in question since WVP never received a document matching the title of the attachment.

– WVP submitted a request seeking communications between Interior and the Office of U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) as well as records reflecting meetings or phone calls with Sen. Portman’s office. To date, WVP has not received any records from Interior regarding this request. Emails between Interior officials, however, indicate they had identified responsive documents, but they were withheld as a result of the awareness process.

WVP submitted three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on May 28th after Roll Call CQ reported that several requests by the group and others have been subject to political awareness review, creating delays and the removal of some 80 pages of responsive documents of by a political appointee. WVP filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for public documents involving the political awareness review process after the department failed to respond within the 20 days allowed under the law.

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 process. The analysis of the public documents released by the National Parks Service (NPS) about the review process discovered that major media outlets including The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Politico, The Hill and others, as well as watchdog organizations, were subject to the political awareness review, causing delays and, in several cases, limiting responsive public documents being released.

A bipartisan group of senators recently sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency after it was revealed that the agency is considering implementing rules similar to those already in use at the Interior Department. The group of senators indicated that they are considering legislation to address FOIA restrictions under the Trump administration.

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.