Interior watchdog investigating political appointees' review of FOIA requests

Interior watchdog investigating political appointees' review of FOIA requests
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The Department of Interior’s internal watchdog confirmed in letters to two lawmakers that they will review the involvement of the agency’s top officials in crafting agency’s public records process which allows political appointees to review and potentially withhold documents from release.

“Our ongoing review will holistically examine the expanded [Freedom of Information Act] FOIA process, including the involvement of senior officials,” Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) wrote in a letters reviewed by The Hill sent to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz) and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Lawmakers call for FTC probe into top financial data aggregator Overnight Health Care: Progressives raise red flags over health insurer donations | Republican FTC commish backs Medicare negotiating drug prices | Trump moves to protect money for religious groups MORE (D-Ore.).

Interior's OIG has already acknowledged probes into several officials, but lawmakers have been eager to expand that scope.

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Grijalva requested an investigation earlier this month of Interior’s Supplemental Awareness Review process, citing evidence that it resulted in inappropriate delays and the removal of entire documents from being released, while Wyden had asked for an investigation into Daniel Jorjani, one of the architects of the policy, who Wyden says may have lied to Congress about it.

The internal policy, unearthed in a recent FOIA release, allows Jorjani, Interior’s deputy solicitor, 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.

The news comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Republicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Ky.) took a step to advance Jorjani’s nomination to serve as Interior’s solicitor, a vote Wyden has vowed to fight. Jorjani told lawmakers at a May hearing that he wasn’t involved in reviewing FOIA requests, but lawmakers say emails between Interior staff about the FOIA process suggest otherwise.

“If these were normal times, I would be shocked, but these are not normal times and it’s no surprise that yet another Trump Interior nominee — the second in six months — is under investigation before they are on the job. Trump’s Interior is corrupt to its core, starting at the top. Daniel Jorjani is another in a long list of unqualified industry insiders and has no business working in the Interior Department. McConnell cannot ignore these serious allegations. He should cancel the vote,” Wyden said in a statement to The Hill.

Interior pushed back against Wyden's comments.

“It's disappointing that Sen. Wyden continues to resort to misguided attacks on one of the most qualified candidates to ever be nominated for the solicitor position at the Department of the Interior. Dan Jorjani is an exemplary leader who has the background and experience necessary to successfully lead the Office of the Solicitor for the Department. We appreciate Senator McConnell's willingness to bring his nomination to a vote, so the Department can finally have a Senate-confirmed Solicitor in place," and Interior spokesperson said by email.

The OIG is already reviewing high-level Interior officials for potential ethics violations, and environmental groups have criticized the department for not doing enough to make sure top employees, including Sec. David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist, avoid conflicts of interest.

Interior’s new watchdog, Mark Lee Greenblatt, took over the OIG earlier this month.

Critics are particularly worried a change in the FOIA process could make it tougher to uncover potential conflicts of interest or ethical issues at the department.

“Transparency in decision-making is among our best defenses against waste, fraud, abuse and corruption. Our federal leaders should be putting policies and procedures in place that promote transparency, not impede it,” Grijalva wrote when he first requested an investigation.

An Interior spokesperson said the agency would cooperate with OIG's review.

“As is clearly posted on our website, every FOIA response by the Department is made by a career FOIA officer, after concurrence by a career lawyer in cases where information is redacted. The IG has been reviewing our Department’s awareness review policy for months, and we will continue to work with them on this ongoing audit, which is designed to allow the Department's leadership and Solicitors Office to efficiently respond to queries and legal ramifications arising from FOIA responses,” the agency said in an email.