Watchdog to probe potential interference by Interior officials in releasing public records

Watchdog to probe potential interference by Interior officials in releasing public records
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The Interior Department Inspector General said it is investigating an agency process that allows political appointees to review and potentially withhold public documents from being released.

The internal watchdog confirmed in a Tuesday letter that its audit division is examining the agency's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy — first introduced in May 2018 and known as an “awareness review" — after several advocacy groups requested a probe.

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Several conservation groups, including the Western Values Project and Campaign for Accountability, filed a complaint in June asking for an investigation into the process that allows Interior political appointees to look at requested public records pertaining to them prior to release.

Following the release of hundreds of public documents to Earthjustice through a FOIA request, the watchdog found that Interior officials had withheld a number of documents from reporters and watchdog groups, citing the awareness view. The conservation groups argued the reasons for withholding the documents in many instances did not meet the criteria laid out in FOIA law, and in many instances a clear reason for withholding was not made by the agency.

“Secretary [David] Bernhardt and Trump’s operatives at Interior are using their political power to withhold information from the public about decisions that impact America’s outdoor heritage. It appears there’s a political cover-up at Interior to hide the culture of corruption that has run amok under Trump and Bernhardt,” said Chris Saeger, executive director at Western Values Project, in a statement Tuesday.

Western Values Project on Tuesday sent the inspector general additional examples of what it called political interference under the awareness review, for inclusion in the agency’s audit. The group said several requests for public documents were delayed or withheld, which they said was potentially a violation of the law.

The audit announcement comes the same week that a group of bipartisan senators introduced a FOIA reform bill designed to address some of the policies laid out in Interior's and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) FOIA rules.

The EPA in late June introduced its own updated FOIA policy, without a public comment period, that critics argue will give political appointees undue authority to withhold documents from release.

Also this week, the same group of bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: EPA chief touts benefits of deregulation for environment | Trump officials weaken fish protections Interior chief once lobbied against | USDA watchdog to probe handling of climate reports EPA chief espouses benefits of agency's environmental deregulation EPA moves to implement Trump order on scaling back industry guidance MORE saying the agency’s FOIA policy was “undermining the American people’s right to access information from the EPA.”