The Interior Department Wants to Restrict Public Requests for Information

David Bernhardt seeks to block FOIA into DOI activities

Just when you thought the Interior Department might recover from former secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership, it becomes clear the acting secretary David Bernhardt’s leadership might not be any better.

The Interior Department proposed a rule over the government shutdown that would restrict public records requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA is “vital to the functioning of a democratic society,” according to the Department of Justice. The proposed restrictions on FOIA requests would allow the federal agency to deny requests it determines are “burdensome” or “vague.” The proposed rule does not specify how it would determine if requests are burdensome or vague. As the Western Values Project puts it, the Interior Department “ could deny any public records request, especially if the requested information is controversial or would reveal the underpinnings of major policy decisions.”

The Interior Department claims FOIA requests are impeding the agency

Zinke’s leadership was one plagued by scandals. The Interior Department’s Inspector General opened investigations of Zinke. One of those investigations concerns the involvements of his family’s foundation in a deal giving land away that had been set apart for public use to a private developer. The chairman of Halliburton funds the development. The Interior Department is facing an increase in FOIA requests relating to Zinke’s tenure, and it cites that increase as the reason for the proposed rule. It claims the FOIA requests are impeding the agency.

The Interior Department has asked permission last fall from the National Archives to permanently destroy records that include oil and gas leases sales, mineral exploration permits, and fish and wildlife surveys. Before Zinke resigned, he installed Daniel Jorjani as the one to oversee the Interior’s FOIA program. Jorjani is a former Koch-employee. Jorjani developed the proposed rule.

There are congressional members concerned about the proposed rule. A bipartisan group of congressional members recently sent a letter to Bernhardt, the Associated Press reported. The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA,” the letter stated. “Rather than clarifying DOI’s FOIA process, the proposed rule would make the process more confusing and potentially expose it to politicization and unnecessary litigation.”

Lack of transparency harms democracy

The proposed rule does not just affect journalists who seek to report the truth about what the government does. Every American is affected as a less transparent government agency results in a less democratic government. And if one federal agency can restrict FOIA requests, then all federal agencies can do so. Transparency is key for a democratic society. It is the fabric of good government. What the Interior Department is doing undermines our society and our government.

If Bernhardt has any sense, he will scrap the proposed rule. Whether he has any sense remains to be seen.

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