Senate confirms top Interior lawyer accused of lying to Congress

Senate confirms top Interior lawyer accused of lying to Congress
© Aaron Schwartz

The Senate voted to confirm a top lawyer for the Department of the Interior who was accused of lying to Congress.

Daniel Jorjani, already the de facto top lawyer for the department, was confirmed with a 51-43 vote. He is the subject of an ongoing review by the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

Jorjani has been a much-eyed figured with Democrats and environmental watchdog groups for his involvement in crafting a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy that allows political appointees to review records requests and even withhold documents.

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“On Friday, the Interior Inspector General confirmed Jorjani is currently under investigation for his role in this FOIA policy. That fact alone ought to be enough to stop this nomination from moving forward,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse MORE (D-Ore.), who vowed to block Jorjani’s nomination, arguing that Jorjani was not forthcoming about his work on the policy during questioning from lawmakers. “Bottom line, I believe Mr. Jorjani lied to the committee and perjured himself.”

Through his role as principle deputy solicitor, Jorjani served as the Interior’s top legal adviser and was also listed as the department’s chief FOIA officer.  

Interior’s new FOIA policy became a significant line of questioning for Democrats during Jorjani’s confirmation hearing earlier this year. Lawmakers were particularly interested in the “awareness review” process that gave political appointees a chance to review documents.

A “supplemental awareness review” process from Interior also gave Jorjani the power to review those requests.

“This review process not only opens up the possibility for inappropriate delays, but also allows for willful and blatant withholding of important information the public has requested,” Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoIf only woke protesters knew how close they were to meaningful police reform Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Senate Democrats call on Facebook to crack down on white supremacists MORE (D-Hawaii) said on the floor during debate over Jorjani’s confirmation.

At his May hearing, Jorjani told senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “I myself don’t review FOIAs or make determinations.”

When Wyden asked Jorjani to respond to questions about the FOIA process in writing after the hearing, Jorjani in many cases referred Wyden to the department’s congressional liaison.

Wyden asked the Interior’s inspector general to investigate Jorjani, arguing the lawyer may have mislead lawmakers.

Internal Interior emails reviewed by lawmakers, reporters and environmental watchdog groups suggest Jorjani was involved in reviewing FOIA requests — something Hirono mentioned during her speech.

“Internal documents released by [Interior] paint a very different picture — one in which Mr. Jorjani was regularly involved in reviewing FOIA documents,” Hirono said. “At best, Mr. Jorjani was not forthcoming or candid. In fact, it appears that he lied. Under oath.” 

Both Hirono and Wyden referenced a well-known line from a Jorjani email that was unearthed by FOIA when Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog Overnight Energy: Trump officials may pursue offshore drilling after election, report says | Energy regulators to delay projects pending appeals | EPA union calls for 'moratorium' on reopening plans MORE was still secretary of the department.

“Mr. Jorjani’s own words about how he views his job — 'our job is to protect the Secretary' — should absolutely be disqualifying,” Wyden said.

A spokesperson for Interior stressed that the review of Jorjani is not considered a formal investigation.

“It's disappointing that Sens. Ron Wyden and Mazie Hirono continue 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," the department said in a statement to The Hill. "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 leadership in bringing his nomination to a vote and the support from the Senators to confirm him as Solicitor of the Department of the Interior."

Other Democrats expressed concern with Jorjani’s performance during his confirmation hearing.

Ranking Member Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump nominee faces Senate hurdles to securing public lands post OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget MORE (D-W.Va.) voted against Jorjani, saying he was frustrated that he was not more candid when responding to Wyden’s questions.

“The solicitor must uphold the law above all else about, above party politics and ideology. That was not the sense I got,” about Jorjani, Manchin said in May when Jorjani was voted out of committee.

The recorded vote to confirm Jorjani was in itself noteworthy. According to research from the Center for American Progress, Jorjani’s recorded vote was a first-ever for an Interior solicitor.

Others were confirmed unanimously or via voice vote. 

Updated at 5:50 p.m.