Interior Department Withheld Records About Bernhardt During Confirmation, IG Says
WASHINGTON — Political officials at the Interior Department deliberately held back “sensitive” records about Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during his confirmation process, the department’s internal watchdog said Tuesday.
Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing in March 2019 and the Senate confirmed him by a 56-41 vote in April.
But in February 2019, shortly after Bernhardt was nominated by President Donald Trump to be secretary, Hubbel Relat, an adviser to Bernhardt, directed staff at the department’s legal office and other DOI staffers who process Freedom of Information Act requests to “temporarily withhold documents related to Bernhardt” that were being released as part of a lawsuit, the Interior Department’s inspector general said in a report released Tuesday.
DOI withheld 253 pages from the plaintiff’s request before releasing “most” of them in December, months after Bernhardt’s confirmation, the IG said. The report does not identify which lawsuit or records, and the inspector general closed its investigation.
During the Trump administration, Interior and other federal agencies have implemented more aggressive screening procedures for FOIA requests, drawing ire from outside watchdog groups.
As CQ Roll Call first reported in May 2019, Interior has used an “awareness review” policy to allow political officials at the department to screen records that may be released under records requests and pluck out items for release, a practice FOIA experts called troubling and rare.
Bernhardt defended the awareness review policy before the Senate, and Interior defended its activity in a statement after the IG report was released.
“The report demonstrates that the Department’s actions were consistent with its legal, ethics, and FOIA obligations, including the applicable court order,” a DOI spokesman said Tuesday.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., urged the IG to investigate Interior’s awareness review practice and upbraided the department in a joint statement Tuesday, accusing it of a “cover-up” to insulate Bernhardt.
“Political appointees at the agency have put their ideologically based personal interests over the interests of the American people, violating the public trust upon which the Department of the Interior is based,” the pair said. “Officials at Interior are now on the record admitting what we suspected all along: They orchestrated a cover-up to protect Secretary Bernhardt during his confirmation, and all but lied to Congress about it.”
The report states that in early February 2019, Relat met with three attorneys from the department’s solicitor’s office “who were assigned to assist with the FOIA litigation. According to two of them, Relat told them during this meeting to take all documents related to Bernhardt — addressed to him, sent from him, or referring to him — out of the court-ordered document production related to the FOIA litigation.”
The report says the third official could not remember if that direction came from Relat but confirmed the direction was made.
Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani told the IG investigators he thought Relat’s action was proper under FOIA and that he was ultimately responsible for the decision to delay the release of public records.
At his confirmation in the summer of 2019 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, Jorjani told members an awareness review process did not exist at the department.
FOIA requests submitted by CQ Roll Call, other news-gathering organizations and environmental groups such as Earthjustice, as well as the report released Tuesday, show the opposite: that such a policy did exist.
Wyden and Grijalva said Jorjani’s statements to Congress “were not truthful” and demanded the Justice Department investigate if the solicitor perjured himself.
©2020 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In The News
Dep. of Interior
WASHINGTON — Three Interior Department divisions have gone without Senate-confirmed leaders during the entire Trump administration, endangering department policies and decisions over violations of laws that govern presidential appointments and nominations. Through a series of appointments that appear to have bypassed the Appointments Clause of the Constitution and the Federal Vacancies Reform... Read More
WASHINGTON — Political officials at the Interior Department deliberately held back “sensitive” records about Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during his confirmation process, the department’s internal watchdog said Tuesday. Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing in March 2019 and the Senate confirmed him by a 56-41 vote in... Read More
WASHINGTON — The majority of Florida’s House of Representatives delegation, including Donald Trump confidante Matt Gaetz and 12 of Florida’s 13 House Democrats, are demanding additional answers from the Interior Department regarding any Trump administration plan for offshore drilling near Florida. The letter, led by Central... Read More
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump drew the ire of tribes and environmentalists when he issued proclamations in December 2017 significantly reducing the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, two sites designated by previous Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The Trump administration... Read More
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote the House and Senate appropriations panels this week, asking them to withhold funding from a new Trump administration proposal to accelerate the capture of 130,000 wild horses across the west in the next decade. The House and Senate... Read More
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Interior Department, in collaboration with the U.S. Education Department and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will host the first-ever National Tribal Broadband Summit, Sept. 23 and 24 in Washington, D.C. According to the Federal Communications Commission, only 46.6% of tribal... Read More