POLITICS

Interior Department Withheld Trump Nominee Docs Ahead Of Confirmation, Watchdog Finds

Democratic lawmakers are demanding a criminal investigation, saying political appointees "orchestrated a coverup to protect" Secretary David Bernhardt.

Ahead of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Senate confirmation hearing in March 2019, political appointees blocked the public release of documents about the nominee, the agency’s internal watchdog concluded.

The finding, detailed in a seven-page report due out Tuesday, comes approximately a year after Interior’s Office of Inspector General began investigating the department’s controversial Freedom of Information Act policy, which gives political appointees the ability to review public information requests prior to their release, and in some cases withhold material altogether. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who last year made separate requests for the inspector general to expand the probe into Interior’s so-called awareness review policy, slammed the department in a joint statement Tuesday.

They accused Trump administration officials of having “orchestrated a coverup to protect Secretary Bernhardt during his confirmation” and renewed a demand that the Department of Justice open a criminal investigation into whether Daniel Jorjani, the Interior Department solicitor, perjured himself when questioned about the FOIA policy during his May confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Not since the Teapot Dome scandal have we seen a more corrupt Interior Department,” said Wyden and Grijalva, referring to an early 1920s scandal involving secret oil leases in Wyoming. “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.”

Daniel Jorjani, the Interior Department's top lawyer, appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee o
Daniel Jorjani, the Interior Department's top lawyer, appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 2, 2019.

Jorjani, who served as the agency’s principal deputy solicitor before being promoted, oversees Interior’s embattled ethics office and the department’s FOIA program.

But when Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Jorjani at his May confirmation hearing who was in charge of Interior FOIA requests, Jorjani replied: “I, myself, don’t review FOIAs or make determinations.” In a subsequent written response to Wyden, Jorjani said he “typically did not review records prior to their release under the FOIA.” He also flatly denied the existence of a “heightened awareness” FOIA process for top agency officials. 

The public record shows otherwise. Documents released in July 2019 by environmental group Earthjustice indicate Jorjani was not only aware of the “awareness review” policy at Interior, but often examined FOIA material before it was released.

Wyden and Grijlava said Tuesday that the IG report shows Jorjani provided false information under oath.

Jorjani, a former Koch brothers adviser, has shown himself a Trump administration loyalist, once telling colleagues that “our job is to protect the secretary” from ethics probes and negative media coverage, as HuffPost first reported.

The inspector general’s report notes that soon after President Donald Trump nominated Bernhardt in February 2019 to replace scandal-plagued outgoing Secretary Ryan Zinke, then-counselor to the secretary Hubbel Relat “directed staff” from the department’s solicitor and FOIA offices to “temporarily withhold documents related to Bernhardt,” including communications to and from him, in response to an FOIA lawsuit.

As part of that civil lawsuit, a federal court ordered Interior to review 1,500 pages of records per month and release all responsive documents. Interior and a Department of Justice attorney told the inspector general’s investigators that the court order only requires the review of 1,500 pages, and the department may determine which to release. 

The order to withhold documents related to Bernhardt came directly from Relat, according to the inspector general, citing unnamed department attorneys. One “remembered that this direction from Relat was to remain in place until after Bernhardt’s confirmation,” the report says.

The directive resulted in some 250 pages being withheld from a batch of documents released in February 2019. Most were that December, some seven months after the Senate confirmed Bernhardt as Interior chief, according to the IG report. 

Relat downplayed the directive in an interview with the inspector general. He said his approach was to release what the department was legally obligated to, but to be strategic about “sensitive information” it was not required to make public.

Jorjani told investigators he could not recall discussing the order with Relate, but it sounded “quite reasonable” and “perfectly consistent with how I would have approached it.” 

“Either I came up with the idea ― and I would like to think I’m smart enough to do that ― or Hubbel [Relat], being proactive, said, ‘Oh, can we do this compliantly and consistent with the court’s direction,’ and then ran it past me,” Jorjani told the inspector general. “It would be one of those two, I would think.” 

Interior spokesperson Ben Goldey sought to portray the report as a victory, saying it “demonstrates that the Department’s actions were consistent with its legal, ethics, and FOIA obligations, including the applicable court order.” Goldey pointed to what Edward Keable, then the assistant solicitor of general law, told investigators.

“My recollection is that this was not a ‘hold off and don’t produce anything’ direction so much as a ‘let’s take a hard look at these documents and make appropriate determinations on what to do with them, based on that careful review,’” Keable said, according to the inspector general.

David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, was confirmed as the 53rd secretary of the Interior Department in April
David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, was confirmed as the 53rd secretary of the Interior Department in April 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Jorjani and Relat previously worked together at Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a now-defunct Koch brothers-backed nonprofit.

The inspector general noted that Jorjani acknowledged that the directive to withhold FOIA documents falls on him as the agency’s top lawyer. As for whether Interior met its court-ordered obligations to produce FOIA records, the inspector general said it’s for a judge to decide.

At his confirmation hearing last year, Jorjani appeared alongside Mark Greenblatt, then Trump’s nominee to serve as Interior inspector general. Greenblatt, who has since been confirmed to the post and issued Tuesday’s report, told lawmakers at the time that he had a long track record of “fair, objective, independent oversight” in his previous role as the assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Commerce.

“I’ve gone toe-to-toe with the biggest lawyers in town,” Greeenblatt said. “I didn’t back down then, I’m not going to back down now.”