Exclusive: Trump administration delayed releasing documents related to Yellowstone superintendent's firing

The release of internal documents sought by The Hill related to the replacement last year of Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk were delayed by the Interior Department under a new rule that gives political appointees more say over what is released.

Interior political officials held back the release of a set of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents for nearly a month after some officials questioned whether the materials should have been provided to The Hill, according to new internal Interior emails granted to the environmental group Earthjustice in a recent public records request.

The partially redacted documents were eventually released to The Hill on April 4, nearly a month after the first deadline set by the National Park Service (NPS).

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The delayed documents included communications in the days leading up to Wenk’s departure between him and acting NPS Director Dan Smith, Interior chief of staff Todd Willens, former senior adviser and national park superintendent Dave Mihalic and Rick Obernesser, the acting deputy director for operations at NPS.  

FOIA officials first flagged the four responsive documents set to be released to The Hill on March 6 to political appointees as part of the newly implemented Interior policy known as an “awareness review.”

The policy allows senior political officials referenced in FOIA requests to see the documents 72 hours prior to their release to any reporter or watchdog group that requested the public data. 

“[The FOIA documents are] slated to be released on March 12, 2019. The attached documents are being provided to you for 72 Awareness Review,” Charis Wilson, NPS FOIA officer, wrote to Interior officials.

A day before the documents were set to go out, Interior’s top lawyer, Hubbel Relat, responded to the email, requesting a delay.

“We’re reviewing now. Could we get a bit more time? Thanks!” he said.

Both Willens and Smith were able to view the documents before their release, according to the internal emails.

In another email, Katie Mills, the top lawyer for Interior’s Office of the Secretary, asked why text messages were to be included in the release. She questioned whether the dates were outside The Hill’s FOIA request.

“I was also curious as to why some text messages are included when they are outside of the date range requested?” Mills asked the day before the documents were set for release. “I’m just trying to understand why they may have been included, or if I was possibly missing something? Thanks so much!”

Mills was told that the texts were to be included because another similar FOIA request had a broader date range and it was easier for the office to do one search.

Alison Yamato, FOIA officer for the NPS Intermountain Region, apologized for the delay to The Hill, citing the government shutdown, not the awareness review.

“I am sorry for such a tardy response. We got more backlogged as a result of the government shutdown than I had anticipated. Please find our final response and 4 responsive documents attached,” she wrote.

The documents that were eventually released contained internal text communications that shed light on the circumstances surrounding Wenk’s departure from the NPS, and the lack of communication he got from superiors about his sudden reassignment.

Wenk left Yellowstone and the NPS last year after learning he was being reassigned from Wyoming to Washington, D.C., mere months before he was set to retire. He declined the reassignment and was shortly thereafter replaced in June 2018.

Wenk told The Hill at the time that he believed the reassignment was retribution from then-Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE, who he said disagreed with his management of bison in Yellowstone. Bison management is a hot-button issue for ranchers in Wyoming and Montana who fear they can spread disease to cattle. Zinke is a former Montana congressman.

Wenk said he felt he was forced out of the NPS and was never given a straight answer for his reassignment.

One of the text message exchanges released through the FOIA request to The Hill was between Wenk and Obernesser. The text from Wenk references a letter he sent to then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is now Interior’s chief. In the letter Wenk said he outlined questions he had about the circumstances of his reassignment and asked for clarification.

“Just blind copied you on an email. I need more information and I think I asked on a respectable manner,” Wenk wrote to Obernesser on June 20, 2018.

In another exchange on June 24, Wenk texts Obernesser: “I finished the email. I think I should send it to Bernhardt, [Susan] Combs, Smith and Obernesser, with a copy to [Sue] Masica. I am concerned that you will get this to Danny and Susan and David will never see it. Thoughts?”

The letter Wenk referenced in the texts was not released in the FOIA releases given to The Hill in April.

Speaking to The Hill on Tuesday, Wenk criticized Interior’s awareness review policy and the redactions included in the FOIA response.

“What don’t they want you to see?,” he said on a call. “The whole process is amazing to me. In terms of they all get to change, any political appointee gets the chance to go through things and determine whether or not they are sent out."

Wenk criticized NPS for not including the letter he sent to Bernhardt in the records request to The Hill or one other group that requested similar information.

“There is stuff that is not here,” he said of the materials provided. “I sent something to David Bernhardt that I copied to Dan Smith, that was a three-or-four page memo that outlined every conversation in what was said."

Wenk said the materials would have underscored his contention that he was being lied to by officials for the reasons behind his reassignment, and not getting straight answers from those he talked to.

“What it was, was I was being lied to continually by Daniel Smith. I was not being dealt with in a forthright and truthful manner. So I wrote a letter to Bernhardt and copied these people saying these are the conversations I am having. Basically saying, 'Why aren’t you dealing with me?' ”

He said Bernhardt eventually called him back but didn’t provide any details. All communications following that happened over telephone calls.

An Interior spokesperson would not comment on The Hill’s particular FOIA request but said the awareness review policy allows an extension on reviews of information requests “if there is a valid need for a reasonable extension." They did not specify what factors qualified for a “valid need” and why that extension, in the case of The Hill’s request, could take nearly a month.

Responding to Wenk’s criticism, the spokesperson added, “In general the law provides that a personnel file and similar files that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, may lawfully be withheld to protect the privacy of individuals, including employees.”

It was not made clear whose privacy might have been in question in the case of Wenk and the other officials.

Conservation groups have heavily criticized the new Interior policy on document requests, arguing it flies in the face of FOIA law by creating unwarranted delays and in some cases appears to allow senior officials the ability to push back and try to block public information from being released.

On Monday, various conservation groups sent two separate requests to Interior’s top watchdog, asking it to open investigations into the legality of the practice.

Senators in May also questioned Interior’s acting solicitor Daniel Jorjani for implementing the awareness review. Jorjani first signaled changes to the FOIA office in December and was nominated to formally head the solicitor’s office at Interior this year.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Trump: 'Great to see' Pelosi plan to lower drug prices Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices MORE (D-Ore.) specifically asked about Interior lawyer Relat’s involvement.

“At any time, did Mr. Relat or anyone in the solicitor’s office instruct or suggest FOIA officers remove documents from FOIA responses that were under court order? What was the result of those suggestions or instructions?” Wyden asked.

Jorjani said he couldn't discuss “particular litigation matters.”

Interior defended the awareness review practice as a long-standing, previously informal policy that the Trump administration formalized this year.

“As the name implies, the process ensures that matters of concern to Department leadership are flagged for awareness. This also allows a FOIA officer to receive contextual information in order to help them better apply the relevant legal standards,” an Interior spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.