When Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, left his post as U.S. Interior Department secretary on Jan. 2, he was under fire on multiple fronts.
There was an ongoing federal investigation into Zinke's role in a real estate deal between his family foundation and the head of oil giant Halliburton. Rumors swirled that his office tried to replace the head of Interior's internal watchdog with a Trump political appointee. Some of these investigations came about because of public records requests to Interior from media outlets and environmental protection groups.
One frequent requestor was Western Values Project, a non-profit government watchdog group based in Zinke's hometown of Whitefish, Mont. Zinke called out Western Values specifically, criticizing the group during a Fox News interview shortly before he resigned.
"They're operatives from the Democratic Party," he said. "They're hacks, they've always been, and they need to be investigated."
Now a new rule proposed by Interior in December appears designed to make it harder for groups like Western Values Project to get those public records. The rule would give the agency greater discretion over how it handles public records requests. For instance, the agency would require individuals or organizations to be more specific in which documents they want. It also allows a cap on the number of documents Interior processes for individuals and organizations every month.
None of which sits well with Chris Saeger, the Western Values Project's executive director.
"What they are doing is a very thinly veiled effort to target critics of the Trump administration and to keep their corruption a secret," he said.
Western Values is a vocal and persistent critic of the Trump administration. It has filed 152 requests with the Interior Secretary's office since Trump took office. The agency's embrace of industry as part of its pro-energy agenda has, in part, led to a two hundred percent increase in Freedom of Information Act requests to the secretary's office from all kinds of groups and individuals.
"We file public records requests in order to find out if the people who run the Department of the Interior have conflicts of interests with the companies that they are supposed to regulate," he said.
But the Interior Department argues it's being inundated by complex requests from "litigious special interest groups" asking for thousands of government emails and documents.
"They are more voluminous," said Hubbel Relat, counselor to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. "They've delved a little deeper into the quest for a range of information that appears to, at times, be asking for every document that's ever been created by the Department of the Interior."
If the requests aren't responded to within 20 workdays or processed within a timely manner, the Interior Department can be sued. Western Values has filed six lawsuits against Interior in the past two years; at the end of fiscal year 2018, the Interior Department was facing nearly 130 FOIA-related lawsuits.
Relat said all this litigation has slowed down the processing of public records requests for everyone else, including those who can't afford to litigate and must wait even longer for a response.
"What this [new rule] does is allow us to say, 'OK. We will produce a set number of documents and then we are going to move to the next requester and then and on and on," Relat said. "So everyone gets the same amount of documents and we will return to your request once everybody has had a turn."
But media advocates aren't buying it.
"The changes are really incredible," said Adam Marshall, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press. "And not in a good way."
His organization has filed comments with Interior on behalf of 39 news organizations – including NPR. It argues the regulations will make it more difficult for the public and the press to know what's going on at Interior.
"These are things that affect people in a really tangible way," Marshall said. "Increased public interest should be welcomed by the department. They should be taking steps to make more information available."
Marshall argues that the Interior Department should hire more staff to process requests in a timely manner. A 2018 report from the agency's chief FOIA officer blamed the backlog on a hiring freeze and limited staffing, as well as on the big rise in complex requests and subsequent litigation.
Press advocates and environmental protection groups aren't the only ones concerned about the Interior Department's new rule. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the House Natural Resources Committee chairman, has called for an oversight hearing.
The new changes have received around 61,000 public comments, including a letter from the Southern Environmental Law Firm representing more than 100 advocacy groups. In the letter, the groups argue the proposed rule is illegal and would "severely undermine government transparency, violate FOIA, and limit important public rights guaranteed by statute."
The Interior Department said it will review public comments before publishing a final version.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Ever since Donald Trump took office, federal agencies have been swamped with Freedom of Information Act requests. This includes the Interior Department. It manages one-fifth of the land in this country, including the wealth of resources underneath it. The agency says it's being inundated with requests for government documents and emails. So it's proposing a controversial new policy that could make it tougher to get public records. Nate Hegyi of member station KUER has our story.
NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: When Ryan Zinke resigned from running the Interior Department, he was under fire from environmentalists, from Democrats and from a flurry of federal investigations looking into potential ethics violations. Here's Zinke on Fox News in late November.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RYAN ZINKE: This is politically motivated. In Montana, we call it BS.
HEGYI: The investigations were often spurred by public records requests from journalists and advocacy groups like Western Values Project. Zinke called them out specifically to Fox.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ZINKE: They're operatives from the Democratic Party. They're hacks. They've always been. And they need to be investigated.
HEGYI: Now a new rule from the Interior Department appears designed to make it harder for groups like Western Values Project to get these public records. It allows the agency to put a cap on the number of documents it processes for individuals or organizations every month. And it requires tighter, targeted, more specific requests. This doesn't sit well with Chris Saeger. He runs Western Values.
CHRIS SAEGER: What they are doing is a very thinly veiled effort to target critics of the Trump administration and to keep their corruption a secret.
HEGYI: Western Values is a Montana-based nonprofit group that advocates for public lands. It is a vocal critic of the Trump administration and has filed around 150 requests with the Interior secretary's office.
SAEGER: We file public records requests in order to find out if the people who run the Department of Interior have conflicts of interests with the companies that they're supposed to regulate.
HEGYI: This administration in particular embraced industry in many of its regulatory jobs. But the Interior Department says the new rule isn't about politics. It's about, quote, litigious special interest groups asking for thousands of documents and creating a massive backlog at the agency. Hubbel Relat is a top lawyer at Interior. And he says some of these requests are unwieldy.
HUBBEL RELAT: A range of information that appears to, at times, be asking for every document that's ever been created by the Department of the Interior.
HEGYI: If Interior doesn't respond within 20 business days or people don't get the records in a timely manner, they can take legal action. Western Values, for instance, has sued six times. And at the close of fiscal year 2018, the Interior Department was facing nearly 130 active FOIA-related lawsuits. Relat says this has slowed down the process for everyone else. He says the new changes will make it easier for everyday people and journalists to get public records quickly. But media advocates aren't biting.
ADAM MARSHALL: The changes are really incredible (laughter) and not in a good way.
HEGYI: That's Adam Marshall. He's a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. His organization has filed comments with Interior on behalf of 39 news organizations, including NPR. It argues that these regulations will make it more difficult for the public and the press to know what's going on at Interior.
MARSHALL: These are things that affect people in a really tangible way. Increased public interest should be welcomed by the department. They should be taking steps to make more information available.
HEGYI: Marshall argues that FOIA backlogs aren't new in the federal government. But other agencies aren't changing the rules like Interior is. A 2018 report from Interior's chief FOIA officer blamed their growing backlog, in part, on being understaffed. For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Salt Lake City, Utah.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations in the Rocky Mountain states.
(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.