Ryan Zinke (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Interior Department wants to shut down public information access

Ryan Zinke’s parting insult would let agencies ignore "unreasonably burdensome" FOIA requests


Sarah Okeson
January 3, 2019 12:59PM (UTC)
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Ryan Zinke is out as Secretary of the Interior, but in his last days in office, he tried to suppress what we can learn about the destruction Trump is doing to our nation’s public lands.

Attorney Daniel Jorjani, who previously worked at the Koch-funded Freedom Partners, drafted a proposed rule that would slash the public’s ability to get public records from the 10 agencies in the Interior Department.

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The Freedom of Information Act, a federal law signed by former President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, allows people to ask for previously unreleased documents. The law was passed after thousands of federal employees accused of being communists were fired during the McCarthy era, and the Eisenhower administration wouldn’t release records from the dismissals.

“I signed this measure with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded,” Johnson said after he signed the law.

Notable uses of the law include environmentalists learning that the EPA knew in the 1980s that paper mills were discharging toxic dioxin into rivers.

Jorjani’s proposal would allow the Interior Department to reject requests that the Trump administration decides are “unreasonably burdensome.” Currently, agencies must fulfill records requests despite how much time and effort is required to search for records.

“The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material,” he wrote.

The proposal would also allow the Interior Department to impose a monthly limit for processing records.

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“We’re deeply concerned about these proposed changes,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for The Wilderness Society.

Jorjani, the principal deputy solicitor, was on the transition team in the Interior Department after Trump took office and has run the department’s legal office. The nominee for the job, Ryan Nelson, withdrew and was nominated to fill an appellate court vacancy.

Jorjani wrote that the Interior Department wants to make the changes because of increases in records requests since Trump took office. FOIA requests have increased 30% from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2018 as environmentalists and others have sought information to oppose Zinke’s rollbacks of public lands protections.

Alex Thompson, a spokeswoman for The Wilderness Society, said publishing the proposed regulation wasn’t allowed during the government shutdown when only necessary or emergency notices are to be published.

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People have until Jan. 28 to comment on the proposed changes.

Zinke also tried to get permission to destroy some records about what animals are protected under the Endangered Species Act. A recent memo at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, part of the Interior Department, directs staffers to withhold or delay releasing some public documents about how the Endangered Species Act is carried out.

Zinke put Jorjani in charge of overseeing records requests, a role normally reserved for career staffers, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

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Sarah Okeson

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