Chairs Grijalva, Cummings Lead Letter to Acting Secretary Bernhardt Pressing for More Information on New FOIA Policies, Lack of Public Responsiveness
Washington, D.C. – Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Chair Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform today sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt pressing him for information on recently announced changes to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The letter, available at http://bit.ly/2UBvH3I, is also signed by Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.), chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The letter cites multiple recent DOI moves to limit or politicize FOIA responses:
- On May 24, 2018, DOI issued a memo requiring any document production from a FOIA request that includes a political appointee to be given to that appointee for review.
- On Sept. 6, 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services staff received guidance on withholding or redacting information using the FOIA exemption for information that is deliberative, covered by the attorney-client privilege, or attorney work product. The guidance is only known to the public because it was leaked to the press.
- On Dec. 28, 2018 — a Friday during peak holiday season in the middle of a government shutdown — the agency announced a proposed rulemaking that could allow DOI bureaus to increase response times of certain requests, limit the numbers of responses by people or groups, and deny requests viewed as too burdensome.
The lawmakers ask for a range of pertinent documents to help them better understand how these proposals were crafted, the impacts they have already had, and the impacts that may reasonably be expected to have on public transparency, including annual budgets for processing FOIA requests since fiscal year 2016; any foreseeable harm analyses resulting from a FOIA request; and any documents and communications from the DOI FOIA or Solicitor’s office related to the awareness review process or “heightened awareness” that specifically mention senior Interior officials, including but not limited to Acting Secretary David Bernhardt.