Green groups ask Interior watchdog to investigate agency's public records policies

Green groups ask Interior watchdog to investigate agency's public records policies
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A number of conservation groups are asking the Interior Department’s internal watchdog to investigate reports that political appointees are improperly interfering in the release of public records.

Two separate complaints filed Monday by Earthjustice and the Campaign for Accountability say officials are using an "awareness review" policy to unlawfully delay the release of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and demand Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) look into the situation.

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Earthjustice’s letter, dated June 14, claims the department's FOIA process "has been subject to political interference by political appointees and non-career staff" since 2017.

The letter follows reports earlier this month that the Interior Department’s FOIA office allowed its political appointees mentioned in FOIA requests to weigh in on whether or not materials set to be released to the public should be withheld. The new process was deemed an “awareness review.”

The group argues that the policy violated the Freedom of Information Act by preventing the agency from issuing timely responses to requests, and caused the agency to miss litigation deadlines in FOIA lawsuits.

Earthjustice asks acting Inspector General Gail Ennis to investigate whether Interior “improperly influenced the FOIA response process” in a way that resulted in unwarranted delays or the withholding of information that would have been otherwise released.

An OIG spokesperson said the office was reviewing the request.

The Campaign for Accountability, along with Western Values Project and other conservation groups, sent a separate letter to Interior's OIG claiming that Interior is allowing political appointees "to opine on the substance of FOIA releases and potentially, to illegally delay the production of records and withhold documents from the public."