House requests investigation of Interior political appointees' review of public records

House requests investigation of Interior political appointees' review of public records
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee requested a government watchdog investigate additional details in its ongoing probe of the Interior Department’s new public records policy, which allows political appointees to review and potentially withhold documents from release.

In a letter sent to the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) Friday, the committee asked for the OIG to additionally look into Interior’s Supplemental Awareness Review process.

The internal policy, unearthed in a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) release, allows Interior deputy solicitor Daniel Jorjani and deputy chief of staff Downey Magallanes five days to review all records requests related to senior staff in the secretary’s office before release.

The supplemental review is in addition to the Interior’s Awareness Review process first put forth as early as May 2018. That policy allows any presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed, non-career senior executive employees the ability to review FOIA requests related to them before they are released publicly.

Critics argue the policies allow political staff unprecedented input into the legitimacy of FOIA matches and that they could lead to documents being unlawfully withheld.

Interior’s IG office agreed in July to investigate the Awareness Review process at the behest of several environmental advocacy groups.

A spokeswoman for Interior’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed Friday that they received the letter signed by committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). 

An Interior Spokesperson said the new process allows the agency's leadership the ability to "efficiently" respond to requests and that they have been collaborating with Grijalva's office for two months.

"Public service is a public trust, which is why the improved processes the Department has implemented to accurately respond to FIOA requests is publicly posted on our website for all to see. The department's FOIA review process allows the Department's leadership and Solicitors Office to efficiently respond to queries and legal ramifications arising from FOIA responses." the spokesperson said in a statement

The letter sites numerous emails between top-level Interior political staff that the committee says indicates they gave verbal instructions on whether to withhold sensitive documents — something they believe may go beyond the pale of the agency’s publicly available policy. 

Grijalva said there is evidence that the review process resulted in inappropriate delays and the removal of entire documents from being released.

The investigation could prove significant as Interior works to get Senate confirmation for some of its top leadership. President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE first nominated Jorjani, the de facto top lawyer for the department, to officially serve as solicitor for Interior in February.

Jorjani defended the role he has so far played at Interior as principal deputy solicitor, telling lawmakers at his May hearing, “I myself don’t review FOIAs or make determinations.”

But lawmakers say emails show he was involved in reviewing FOIAs and determining whether documents should be released.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Microsoft to provide free updates for voting systems running Windows 7 through 2020 Interior watchdog investigating political appointees' review of FOIA requests MORE (D-Ore.) placed a hold on Jorjani’s confirmation in July after he asked the OIG for an investigation into whether the nominee perjured himself during his confirmation hearing for saying he does not review FOIAs.

While Grijalva did not ask for an investigation into Jorjani specifically, emails shared with the committee that were reviewed by The Hill appear to show numerous instances where political staff, including Jorjani, met to discuss FOIA practices and gave verbal instructions for how to respond to requests for information. 

A February email from Jorjani directs an employee to organize weekly meetings with his deputies to “discuss OS FOIA responses,” using the abbreviation for Office of the Secretary.

One of those deputies, Hubbel Relat, is mentioned repeatedly in emails cited by the committee, which include instances of him giving verbal instructions on FOIA policy that may go beyond what the agency’s written guidance.

"Emails indicate that Hubbel Relat, then counselor to the Secretary, gave additional verbal instructions regarding FOIA productions," Grijalva wrote in his investigation request.

The emails also show confusion from FOIA staff over how to process requests.

An email from November of last year from a FOIA officer says Relat directed FOIA staff to send all requests to him and other high-level political appointees. The FOIA officer then says he was confused by what requested documents need to go through the awareness review process.

“We never received clear verbal or written guidance on what is expected to go through this additional awareness,” the FOIA officer wrote.

Updated at 2:50 p.m.