Political interference may be behind Interior’s roadblocks to releasing information readily available in previous administrations
Today, Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the Department of the Interior release records responsive to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent in May pertaining to Secretary Deb Haaland’s calendar and travel records. During the two prior administrations, details of the Interior Secretary’s calendar had regularly been posted on the Department website. Recent comments by the Department’s Director of Communications indicate potential interference by political appointees may be responsible for the current lack of transparency. The lawsuit is the second FOIA lawsuit filed by PPT, following a suit against the Department of Energy last week.
During her tenure on the House Natural Resources Committee, then-Representative Haaland and her colleagues lodged multiple complaints regarding online calendars they believed were delayed or provided insufficient detail. Yet a former staffer of the committee’s chairman, Raul Grijalva, is now charged with maintaining the Secretary’s calendar and it appears the agency may be intentionally withholding it. The American public currently has access only to a skeleton version of Secretary Haaland’s first two weeks, with no information provided for the nearly six months since. PPT has yet to receive any documents related to its FOIA request seeking details about the Secretary’s schedule, travel, meetings and related communications it filed the first week of May.
An investigation by PPT reveals more than just a delayed FOIA process may be responsible. During a webinar with the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) in July, Interior’s Director of Communications, Melissa Schwartz, hinted that the lack of information provided may be the result of political interference. (Relevant excerpt below)
Despite Ms. Schwartz’s claims, September nears a close with more than a half-year of the Secretary’s calendar still unavailable. PPT has not received a single document in response to its FOIA. The question from SEJ at the webinar indicates broad interest in the availability of Secretary Haaland’s calendar and meeting schedule.
“Compliance with public information laws isn’t supposed to happen merely at the convenience of federal agencies or their press shops. It’s a legal obligation,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “The Department’s resistance to legitimate requests for information, in this and other instances, combined with the comments by Haaland’s communications team points to a broader lack of transparency. The American public deserves much better than what Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior is delivering.”
Moderator: Also, the Department’s website has a secretarial calendar page in the FOIA section. This lists the meetings and activities of Interior secretaries past, all the way back to Jewell. Nothing about Secretary Haaland’s meetings or her travels or anything. Why is that?
Schwartz: I was on a call earlier this week specific to FOIA requests for her calendar and then how we put those up online. Sometimes the data dump for FOIA…just doesn’t look as nice as a communications professional might want it to look… We actually did have something up and then it wasn’t inclusive enough and then we took it down. Just trying to sort of navigate how much to include, whether or not people‘s personally identifiable information needs to be redacted and what that looks… One thing I will say is we take our 508 compliance rules very, very seriously…The secretary in her first week did two pen and pad briefings with reporters and I myself promised reporters that we would have the calendar up. I have blown through my own deadline that I committed to because it’s just taking a little bit more time in the beautiful bureaucracy we work in than I expected. It’s very much on our minds. We’re really trying to use August, perhaps slightly quieter time, to get all of this up, and get us all caught up.