Washington, D.C. March 9, 2020 – In a new letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt today, Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) says the Natural Resources Committee will begin issuing subpoenas unless the Interior Department hands over a variety of documents the Committee has requested – some for more than a year – as part of its legislative and oversight responsibilities. The letter caps the Committee’s longstanding effort to learn more about a series of scandals and reports of mismanagement throughout Trump’s Interior Department.
The letter, available at http://bit.ly/2VXiuWD, points in particular to longstanding document requests on the forced relocation of Washington, D.C.–based employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to Grand Junction, Colo., and other offices around the West. The move, which has already led to at least 81 staff departures and intensified fears of a brain drain, has been widely seen as an attempt to weaken the agency’s ability to carry out its multiple use mission for public lands and a favor to oil and gas corporations seeking weaker enforcement and closer ties to regulators.
The move is also suspected to be a transparent attempt to benefit Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who faces sagging public approval numbers.
The letter sets a hard deadline of March 16 to fully comply with the Committee’s outstanding document requests. Anything other than full compliance, the letter states, will not be regarded as a good faith attempt to answer the Committee’s requests for information and will lead to the issuance of a subpoena.
The letter highlights the Trump Interior Department’s overall pattern of obstruction and bad faith in responding to Committee oversight requests. This issue was the subject of a September 2019 hearing, where Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani repeatedly professed confusion about Interior responding to Committee requests with entirely redacted documents and scanned copies of pages of wingdings and other gibberish.
As Grijalva writes, “The Department of the Interior’s lack of cooperation with valid congressional oversight this Congress persists across time, venue, and subject matter.” Grijalva points out that Interior frequently offers useless, publicly available or outdated information – sometimes in an intentionally difficult-to-use format – in an attempt to inflate the number of pages it can say it has offered the Committee.
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Indeed, Grijalva writes, “In response to a March 13, 2019, request about changes to DOI’s implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, DOI provided a 12,320-page document on May 10, 2019, that was a printout of an Excel spreadsheet that was already publicly available. The format prevented the information in the original file from being reconstituted. Timely emailing a hyperlink to the document would have sufficed; instead, it took nearly two months to provide the document in a useless format.”
Given the opportunity at a March 4 hearing to explain the administration’s thinking on BLM relocation, Susan Combs, the Interior assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, declined to discuss details of the move or DOI’s failure to comply with Committee documents requests, insisting in the face of widely available evidence that the administration is making an “extraordinarily concerted effort . . . to ensure that no persons lost their job.” Grijalva points out in his letter that Combs “was unable or unwilling to say whether DOI had produced all documents responsive to the Committee’s requests, despite being notified ahead of the hearing in an email from Committee staff to her that she would be asked whether the production was complete.”