For Immediate Release
Yetta Stein, Communications Associate
Western Values Project
Interior’s Watchdog Opens Investigation into Political Interference by Trump Appointees
New Investigation At Least Fourth into Bernhardt’s Interior
WASHINGTON - After Western Values Project (WVP), a Montana-based public lands watchdog nonprofit, first highlighted political malfeasance within the Interior Department’s updated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) review process, Interior’s Inspector General (IG) has officially confirmed an investigation into the Department’s practice of allowing political appointees to review, delay, and potentially withhold public documents from release.
“Trump’s culture of corruption—carried out by Secretary Bernhardt and his political appointees—runs rampant within the halls of Interior. Bernhardt’s political team seems to be systematically withholding public documents concerning key decisions that impact America’s public lands and outdoor heritage in order to cover their corrupt tracks,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “We hope Interior’s Inspector General investigation is thorough, timely and transparent.”
Interior’s IG confirmed the investigation in letters sent to both House Natural Resources Chair Raul Graljiva (D-AZ) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), which were obtained and reported on by The Hill after the congressional leaders requested an investigation into the potentially illegal review practice.
Potentially implicated in the IG’s investigation is Daniel Jorjani, presently the nominee to be Interior’s Solicitor General. His nomination was stalled when Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) called on the Department of Justice to launch a criminal investigation into his role in Interior’s now-under-investigation public records political review process. In addition to the request for a perjury investigation, Senator Wyden tried to put a hold on Jorjani’s nomination to be confirmed as the department’s top legal official. However, last week, Majority Leader Sen. McConnell (R-KY) took steps to move Jorjani’s controversial nomination forward.
This is at least the fourth active investigation into Secretary Bernhardt or his appointees. Others include:
- Bernhardt became the subject of a multi-faceted ethics investigation just four days after his confirmation as secretary. The investigation includes Bernhardt’s efforts to alter a biological opinion to benefit former client Westlands Water District and block a scientific report analyzing how controversial pesticides affected protected wildlife.
- Bernhardt’s office has been accused of destroying his official calendars to shield the special interest meetings taken by Bernhardt and his staff.
- Doug Domenech, Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs, was placed under investigation for potential ethical misconduct. Calendars indicated that Domenech met with his former employer, Texas Public Policy Foundation, concerning an endangered species act listing and a property dispute, despite the group’s pending lawsuits with Interior on both issues. Five other Interior officials -- Lori Mashburn, Benjamin Cassidy, Todd Wynn, Timothy Williams, and Vincent DeVito -- were also accused of various ethical violations that all related to conduct with their former employers.
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In June, WVP and Campaign for Accountability, along with three other watchdog groups, filed a complaint with Interior’s IG, calling for an investigation of the political awareness review process of FOIA requests at the department.
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 political 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 also 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.
An analysis of public documents released by the National Park 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 proposed by the Interior Department. The group of senators indicated that they are considering legislation to address public records meddling and FOIA restrictions under the Trump administration.
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