Interior Department’s FOIA efficiency proposal panned as less transparent

Posted at 10:30 PM, Jan 29, 2019

A Trump administration proposal that would limit the public’s access to Interior Department records is drawing the ire of open-government and environmental groups, who are preparing to challenge it with a lawsuit.

The proposal says it is designed to address “exponential increases in requests and litigation” under the Freedom of Information Act in the Trump administration.

Critics charge that the proposal would pull a thicker veil over the department, which makes important decisions about oil drilling, mining, water use and endangered species, and manages millions of acres of public land.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which on Thursday filed a 63-page objection signed by more than 130 groups, called the proposal illegal and claimed that it would provide “the agency with unlimited discretion to deny FOIA requests.”

Their objections include proposed changes that the Interior Department says would “streamline the FOIA submission process in order to help the Department inform requesters and/or focus on meeting its statutory obligations.”

The department proposes limiting the number of requests that individuals or groups could file each month, and to “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.”

A department spokeswoman said making the process more efficient would “ensure more equitable and regular access to federal records for all requesters, not just litigious special interest groups.”

“The Department’s statutory obligations under the Freedom of Information Act will not change,” said spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort. “In fact, many of the proposed changes reflect developments in the law, court decisions, and policy guidance from DOJ. In the face of an unprecedented volume of FOIA requests and resulting litigation, we remain committed to transparency.”

“Our goal is to operate the government in the most lawful, ethical, and efficient manner to best serve the American taxpayer,” she said.

Open The Government, which advocates for transparency at federal agencies, charged that the proposal would hurt the public’s ability to hold officials, like the recently resigned Secretary Ryan Zinke, accountable.

“After Zinke’s scandal plagued, corruption-marred tenure, Interior needs to be more transparent instead of advocating for changes to FOIA that could mask more corruption,” said the group’s executive director, Lisa Rosenberg.

Open the Government said it and other good-government and environmental groups would challenge the department with a lawsuit if changes to the proposal are not made.

The proposal had drawn more than 46,000 comments, according to the public comment website, ahead of the deadline of midnight on Tuesday.

Interior’s proposed rule follows a pattern within the agency. In September, an internal memo was sent to US Fish and Wildlife Service Ecological Services officesoutlining how employees can provide less information when responding to FOIA requests about the Endangered Species Act and other policies the office manages. The Fish and Wildlife Service is part of the Interior Department.

Advocacy groups have filed multiple lawsuits to obtain information they had requested from the department through FOIA. In May 2017, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity filed a FOIA lawsuit against the department to get documents regarding the removal of climate change references from agency communications. The Sierra Club filed a FOIA lawsuit last February to obtain Interior Department officials’ external communications after the department failed to respond to the club’s FOIA request.