Interior Political Appointees Are Part Of Ongoing FOIA Probe, Agency Confirms

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog is investigating the role that senior agency officials, including the nominee to serve as the agency’s top lawyer, played in establishing a controversial policy that allowed political appointees to review public information requests prior to their release. 

Interior’s Freedom of Information Act policy has been the subject of an inquiry by the department’s Office of Inspector General since July, as The New York Times first reported. That month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) requested that the agency watchdog expand its ongoing probe to include Daniel Jorjani, the agency’s principal deputy solicitor. He also called on the Department of Justice to investigate whether Jorjani lied to Congress about his involvement during a May confirmation hearing. 

President Donald Trump nominated Jorjani, a former adviser for fossil fuel moguls Charles and David Koch, to take over as the department’s top lawyer in April. 

Mark Greenblatt, the agency’s inspector general, confirmed the expanded scope of the probe in a pair of letters sent Friday to Wyden and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who also requested an investigation.

“Our on-going review will holistically examine the expanded FOIA process, including the involvement of senior officials,” Greenblatt wrote. 

Jorjani’s nomination could come to the Senate floor for a final vote next week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday filed cloture to advance the nomination. Wyden previously promised to try to block the vote over his concerns that Jorjani perjured himself. 

Responding to Friday’s news, Wyden said that “these are not normal times” and it comes as “no surprise” that another Trump nominee is under investigation. 

“Trump’s Interior is corrupt to its core, starting at the top,” he said in a statement. “Daniel Jorjani is another in a long list of unqualified industry insiders and has no business working in the Interior Department. McConnell cannot ignore these serious allegations. He should cancel the vote.”

An Interior spokesperson said in an email that the agency is continuing to work with the inspector general on its ongoing review.

“It’s disappointing that Senator Wyden continues to resort to misguided attacks on one of the most qualified candidates to ever be nominated for the solicitor position at the Department of the Interior,” the spokesperson said. “We appreciate Senator McConnell’s willingness to bring his nomination to a vote, so the Department can finally have a Senate-confirmed Solicitor in place.”

Late last year, before resigning under a cloud of ethics scandals, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order that put Jorjani, a loyal political appointee, in charge of the agency’s FOIA program. Jorjani once told colleagues that “at the end of the day, our job is to protect the Secretary” from ethics probes and bad press. 

At his May confirmation hearing, Jorjani ― the “chief FOIA officer,” per Zinke’s order ― was asked who oversees FOIA requests to the agency. 

“I, myself, don’t review FOIAs or make determinations,” Jorjani said. In a subsequent written response to Wyden, Jorjani said he “typically did not review records prior to their release under the FOIA.” 

Public records suggest he’s been heavily involved. Documents released by environmental group Earthjustice indicate Jorjani was not only aware of the “awareness review” policy at Interior, but often examined documents before they went out. CQ Roll Call reported in June that Interior political appointees “regularly delayed the release of government records” and in some cases withheld them altogether.

Jorjani joins a seemingly ever-growing list of high-ranking agency officials facing ethics inquiries. One formal probe targets Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Another centers on six officials who maintained close ties to their former employers.