Earthjustice filed suit today on behalf of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth in federal court in the Northern District of California to pry loose suspected new agency guidelines around transparency at the Department of Interior (DOI) put in place under Secretary Ryan Zinke. The lawsuit comes amid a deeply problematic culture of secrecy that has taken root in the Department of the Interior, keeping the American public in the dark about major decisions, important records, and meetings with industry that affect the lands and resources the agency holds in trust for the American people.
“We’re suing because we want to know what Ryan Zinke is hiding,” said Yvonne Yuting Chi, an attorney in Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office. “We noticed a troubling new culture of secrecy at the Interior Department in the review of national monuments last summer, and when we widened our scope, we found it applied to major land and resource decisions being made in bureaus across the agency. But our public lands and resources belong to the American people, and we deserve to know how major decisions are being made about them.”
The transparency lawsuit filed today outlines several harmful Interior Department policies that have been reported, including a potential new practice of top officials reviewing the release of documents about themselves before they are released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A former Director of Communications at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has indicated that the agency directed its staff to stop sharing draft documents over email, and has disallowed hard copies to be taken out of meetings, barring the public from gaining access to them through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Already Secretary Zinke has used poor record keeping to stymie investigations into unethical behavior — including lavish travel on the taxpayer dime,” said Maura Cowley, Sierra Club Resist campaign director. “If past practice is any indication, the documents revealed by this lawsuit will show that his actions, and similar actions supported by policies within the Interior Department, are not just sloppy, but are a purposely secretive attempt to hide information from the public.”
Organizations are finding that they must turn to the courts to receive responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, and even then, the agency drags its feet. Federal law gives the agency 20 days to respond to a request. The lawsuit filed today looks to uncover more about these and related policies.
“Zinke’s attacks on FOIA not only attempt to mask the cozy relationship between high level DOI officials and Big Oil and Coal, they also deny the public our right to know how their government is implementing policy,” said Nicole Ghio, Senior Fossil Fuels Program Manager at Friends of the Earth. “The public has a right to know how decisions are being made that benefit special interests at the expense of our health and safety, our environment, and our public lands. Friends of the Earth was one of many groups that opposed BLM’s proposal undermine FOIA by limiting the number of requests, requiring more stringent justification for fee waivers and increasing search and redaction fees. We will continue to defend our environment and public lands against Zinke’s assaults on transparency and democracy.”
Friends of the Earth has filed 63 requests for information on Interior Department meetings with oil companies such as BP and Exxon around their drilling for oil on American public lands and has received no response. Likewise, they have filed requests for information on meetings between the Peabody Western Coal Company and Zinke’s team on the Kayenta Mine in Arizona and received no response. Similarly, they requested ethics forms and agreements, recusals, waivers, and regulatory exemptions and received no response from the Interior Department.
The new culture at the Interior Department reflects a pattern in other Trump administration agencies.
WHY THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT MATTERS IN OUR DEMOCRACY
Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act has provided the public the right to request records from any federal agency. It is a law that keeps the American people in the know about their government. When a member of the public lodges a request with a federal agency under this Act, the agency must promptly disclose any information requested unless the information falls under one of the nine exemptions protecting interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement. The United States Supreme Court has explained that the “basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”