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Environmental Groups Release Thousands of Interior Department Emails Documenting Unlawful Changes to Basic Transparency Measures

Internal emails reveal efforts, led by Interior's top lawyer Daniel Jorjani, stifling the flow of information to the public under the Freedom of Information Act
WASHINGTON -

Hundreds of Interior Department emails, gained through a year of litigation against the Trump administration, reveal harmful new practices at play at Trump’s Interior Department. Earthjustice represented the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth in a lawsuit aimed at shining a light on a new culture of secrecy at the Interior Department. The organizations are publishing the entire collection to help reporters investigate the hidden ways in which political appointees at the Interior Department are newly restricting information to the public about the public lands and resources the agency stewards on our behalf.

One notable new practice is "awareness reviews," which allow political appointees in the Trump administration to screen and then delay or withhold a release of information mentioning them to the public. A whistleblower at the Interior Department initially went public about this unlawful practice in 2017, and the newly released collection of emails provides proof that the policy is in play.

Of especial interest is the role the Interior Department's lead attorney played in these new practices. At his confirmation hearing in May, Daniel Jorjani testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that "I myself don't review FOIAs or make determinations." He later followed that up in a written statement to Senator Ron Wyden with: "I typically did not review records prior to their release under the FOIA." In both instances, Jorjani misled members of Congress.

"Daniel Jorjani clearly misled members of Congress when he testified about how the Interior Department is filtering information to the American people about treasured public lands and public resources," said Yvonne Chi, attorney at Earthjustice. "We're being unlawfully kept in the dark, and we've had to go to court for a year to get the internal memos that prove it. It's well past time for an investigation."

Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth have sent a letter to Interior’s acting inspector general requesting an investigation into the practice of political screening and Daniel Jorjani’s statements to Congress. The emails show at least three instances where Interior did not meet court deadlines because they were waiting for political appointees to review Freedom of Information Act requests.

"These documents reveal a pervasive pattern at Interior of misleading Congress and withholding information from the public," said Louisa Eberle, Associate Attorney for the Sierra Club. "Daniel Jorjani has made it clear that he cannot be trusted to honestly or responsibly fulfill his duties, and it is critical that an investigation into his deception and lack of transparency begin immediately."

"These documents show the blatant and possibly illegal disregard top Interior officials have for government transparency, raising questions about what else they are hiding from the public," said Nicole Ghio, Senior Fossil Fuel Program Manager at Friends of the Earth. "Daniel Jorjani, the current nominee for Solicitor General at the Department of the Interior, is at the center of these new awareness reviews. Senators from both parties must stand up to this systematic attack on the Freedom of Information Act by stopping Jorjani's confirmation until his actions are fully investigated."

WHY THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT MATTERS IN OUR DEMOCRACY

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act has provided the public the right to request records from any federal agency. It is the bedrock transparency law that keeps reporters and the American people in the know about their government. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the "basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed."

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Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.

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