A political appointee and former adviser to Charles and David Koch will oversee Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the Interior Department, a position typically held by career staff.
Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE last month quietly issued a secretarial order giving Daniel Jorjani the authority to oversee all FOIA requests at the agency, according to a document obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
Jorjani, who Zinke previously appointed as principal deputy solicitor and who has been serving as acting solicitor, will serve as chief FOIA officer, according to the Nov. 20 decree. Trump never submitted a formal nomination for a solicitor at the agency.
Jorjani previously worked for groups tied to the Kochs, who are billionaire conservative donors. In 2011 he was director of policy at the Charles Koch Institute.
Zinke's order from November hinted that Jorjani's role change was tied to a historical uptick in FOIA requests, which the agency blamed on the system’s response structure.
“It is clear that some aspects of the FOIA program's decentralized structure hinder efficient and effective management of operations in the current environment," Zinke wrote. "Different reporting structures across Bureaus, varying sets of operating procedures, and insufficient levels of accountability contribute to the need for Department-wide clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the FOIA program.”
Interior’s FOIA office has seen a 30 percent increase in requests between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, according to the administration. The agency’s Office of the Secretary, which oversees requests related to Zinke and his political staff, said there has been a 210 percent increase in requests over that time period.
“The current volume of FOIA requests and litigation is unprecedented,” an Interior spokesperson said of the increase.
The administration also said increased litigation, largely stemming from the FOIA backlog, is another reason for the rearrangement, saying it will allow more “consistency.”
“Restructuring the FOIA operations and management structure will increase accountability, consistency, collaboration, and distribution of resources," the spokesperson said. "They will also complement technology and related processing improvements already underway. This increased efficiency will mean greater transparency."
Interior said it processed more than 6,900 FOIA requests during the last fiscal year and had 129 active FOIA cases when the year ended, on Sept. 30.
Jorjani is a fierce advocate for Zinke. In a FOIA document released in March he told another staffer, “At the end of the day, our job is to protect the Secretary.”
Critics worry that Jorjani's new role will give the administration and its political allies more power to withhold public information.
“Zinke is politicizing Interior’s Freedom of Information Act process to deny the public access to information and hide the oil industry’s dirty secrets,” said Meg Townsend, an attorney for CBD. “With a Koch crony in charge of records requests, the department will work in darkness. Public records that might shame Zinke or big polluters will be covered up, and our public lands and wildlife will suffer.”