Lawmakers show bipartisan irritation with Interior over withheld documents

Lawmakers show bipartisan irritation with Interior over withheld documents
© Greg Nash

Bipartisan dissatisfaction with the Department of the Interior was on display Thursday as lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee probed the difficulties they’ve faced in getting information on department business.

Chairman Raul Grijalva has said he is eager to subpoena Interior for documents if they do not begin to comply with the committee’s requests. And the Arizona Democrat said Thursday the subpoena process could begin within a week, unless Interior can turn over a detailed timetable for releasing all the documents the committee has sought.

ADVERTISEMENT
If Interior complies, the committee could gain insight into a host of ethical issues plaguing the department, as well as documents tied to a recent decision to relocate the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Lawmakers used screens in the hearing room to flash fully redacted pages, blurred images, and examples where the committee was given limited versions of documents that were given to other requesters in full. 

“Interior’s refusal to cooperate means this committee cannot do the oversight envisioned in our Constitution,” Grijalva said. “That has not stopped the Trump administration from delaying, obstructing and sometimes just ignoring our efforts to conduct oversight."

Grijalva said of the 24 requests sent to Interior, only three of the responses have provided enough information to be deemed satisfactory. 

Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, who was voted into his job just two days ago despite allegations that he lied to Congress, apologized to the committee repeatedly for responses he said were inadequate.

“It looks like the department made a mistake,” Jorjani said when confronted with images of a request that was partially redacted when given to the committee even though the full document was released publicly through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“That's an oversight on our part for which I apologize.” 

It wasn’t just Democrats who were frustrated. 

“There are many of us on the other side of the aisle that may not share the Democrats’ policy positions, but do recognize the role of oversight, and are frustrated when legitimate requests, bipartisan requests are made and not answered,” said Rep. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockControversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment Ex-ambassador to Russia blasts lawmaker for Trump-Lincoln comparison Judiciary Republican asks impeachment witnesses if they voted for Trump MORE (R-Calif.). 

Jorjani stressed to the committee that Interior’s policy for responding to congressional requests was no different now than under the Obama administration.

But McClintock took issue with that.

“Please don't use the previous administration as a model of what they do. I would strongly urge you to use the previous administration as a model of what not to do,” he said. 

Jorjani promised lawmakers he would follow up on a number of requests they made, including a request for planning documents tied to Interior’s decision to move 300 Washington-based BLM employees to various offices across the West.

He also told Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanDemocrats reach cusp of impeachment Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention MORE (D-Calif.) he would review the recusal lists of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and BLM head William Pendley. Pendley’s recusal list, released to top staff yesterday, is 17 pages long.

"Yes, I commit to going back and sitting down with [Departmental Ethics Office director] Scott de la Vega to go through Secretary Bernhardt's and Mr. Pendley's recusals," Jorjani said. 

Huffman questioned why some of Bernhardt’s and Pendley’s recusals only lasted for one year rather than the two required under the Trump ethics pledge. 

He also wanted a review of action Bernhardt has taken after the one-year clock ran out on some of his recusals, given that the secretary has already been involved in work related to past clients. Huffman argued some of Bernhardt’s decisions should not stand, given that his recusal period from dealing with those clients should have been longer.

Grijalva said the committee has been faulted for being too patient with Interior, and laid out what he wanted from the department in order to avoid a subpoena. 

“Unless we get a pretty detailed schedule within a week about where we are, every one of these [requests], and what our timelines are, what our production points are, and when we’ll have it disseminated to all the members, including Republican colleagues, were getting closer and closer to having to take the additional step of compelling that information,” he said.