Watchdog Org Looks for Answers Regarding Interior’s Lack of Transparency

Watchdog Org Looks for Answers Regarding Interior’s Lack of Transparency

  • July 27, 2021

Haaland’s Department has lagged in providing routine ethics information 

On the eve of the members-only meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) with top aides to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust offers a series of suggested questions for SEJ moderators and members to address transparency challenges at Haaland’s Department. 

Protect the Public’s Trust has filed more than a dozen FOIA requests with the Department, many dating back to early May and June and has received responsive documents on only one request. Even requests that have been deemed “Simple” by the Department’s FOIA staff and those for documents that have been routinely offered to the public, such as ethics guidance, calendars, and financial disclosures, have languished. PPT is not alone, as other organizations have encountered unprecedented barriers to obtaining information and transparency from the Department of the Interior under its current leadership.

  1. Why was an organization with a long-standing track record of Freedom of Information Act requests denied a fee waiver on a routine request and forced to go to court?
  2. Does the Department intend to comply with the law and respond to PPT’s outstanding FOIA requests, many of which have passed the statutory deadline?
  3. On May 25, Senior Counsel Elizabeth Klein testified at a House Subcommittee she would provide her ethics and recusal documents in place at that time. But when the Department eventually did produce documents, they were dated more than a week after her testimony. When will the Department deliver the documents in place at that time, as promised, as well as those in place from the date of her appointment?
  4. Will the Department provide these same documents, including financial disclosures, for other political appointees in response to existing FOIA requests?
  5. Previous administrations had published the calendars for the Secretary on the Department website as a matter of routine? Does Secretary Haaland’s team plan to provide this information to the public and when does it plan to begin doing so?
  6. When does the Department plan to update its online FOIA tools to provide information and reflect requests received during the current administration?
  7. Is the Department abusing the White House equity process to unnecessarily delay the release of documents routinely provided without such review? Pending litigation for records from junior staff within the Office of Congressional Affairs would seem to indicate this is the case.

“The Biden Administration has promised unprecedented levels of transparency but what we and others have encountered at Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior are unprecedented levels of opacity,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Publics’ Trust. “With all of the potential conflicts of its top leadership, such as Liz Klein and Tommy Beaudreau, does she believe the Department has something to hide? The lack of transparency at Interior does not inspire trust.”