Interior’s latest responses to my FOIA complaint show that the Office of the Solicitor continues to protect political appointees from public scrutiny.
Back in July, I filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of the Interior in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, saying Interior had violated the Freedom of Information Act and was wrongfully withholding responsive documents. After providing me with about 5,000 pages of documents in response to a FOIA request I’d made on January 19th, 2018, and promising a “rolling release” of more documents, Interior abruptly cut me off, failing to answer numerous emails and phone calls, and leaving me with no recourse but to ask the court to compel them to comply with the law.
After asking for an extension, which I granted, lawyers for Interior filed an answer to my complaint on Wednesday, October 15th. The following day, Judge Boasberg issued a minute order asking the parties to confer and submit a joint proposed briefing schedule by the end of this month. It seems the case is now ready to go forward, with Interior maintaining that my complaint is groundless.
In a bid to settle the whole matter once and for all, just a few days earlier, on October 10th, Interior released a new set of responsive documents. The decision letter that accompanied this release copies the DOJ attorney for the defendants and characterizes this as the “third and final” decision for this particular FOIA request.
So, the position of the Department of the Interior appears to be: we have given you everything you are going to get, and you should stop complaining. The main trouble I have with this position is that they haven’t even begun to give me the very documents I ask for in my FOIA request: namely, and this is the very first item in the request, “any communication sent and received by the Office of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, including but not limited to any emails or letters sent and received directly by the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or on behalf of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, regarding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Antofagasta Plc, Twin Metals Minnesota,” and so on. I’ve gotten nothing — zero, zip — to or from Ryan Zinke. Are we to believe that the Secretary of the Interior never communicated about a major reversal by his department of the previous administration? Nor have I gotten anything to or from Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, who signed the reversal, and whose communications I also asked for.
It’s pretty clear that Interior is protecting political appointees like Zinke and Jorjani from having to show their work — which is exactly what Jorjani has been trying to accomplish with his expansion of the FOIA awareness review policy at Interior. That is the thrust of reporting (like this and this) by Jake Holzman at Roll Call, and the reason why organizations like American Oversight, Earthjustice, and the Western Values Project have asked Interior’s Inspector General to launch an investigation of the awareness review process. It’s also an issue on which Jorjani may have misled the Senate during his confirmation hearing, prompting Senator Ron Wyden to ask that Jorjani’s confirmation be held up until it could be established whether he had perjured himself. (Despite Wyden’s effort, Jorjani was confirmed as Solicitor on September 24, 2019.)
What I’ve gotten, instead, is the work product of civil servants, career attorneys, not political appointees. Even that material has been revealing. With the documents provided so far, I’ve managed to put together a timeline of the work done at interior to reverse the Obama administration. The documents allow us to reconstruct an intensive lobbying effort led by WilmerHale that included visits by executives from Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta Plc and its subsidiary Twin Metals to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile, the Department of the Interior, and the White House. It appears Antofagasta’s attorneys at WilmerHale even provided the blueprint for the M-Opinion, the reversal, that Daniel Jorjani eventually signed. Since I first put them online, these documents have also made their way into Congressional hearings and on to the front page of the New York Times.
The latest release of responsive records is yet another partial disclosure that keeps the work of political appointees out of view. The records come from Division of Mineral Resources attorney Brianna Collier. It’s the second batch of documents from Collier, and though they give us a little more detail into the reversal process, they are a dodge. I’ve added them to the online collection of Boundary Waters FOIA documents here.
All of the work product is heavily redacted, most of it totally redacted. Collier’s emails are more lightly redacted, and they show her at work on the draft of the Boundary Waters reversal as early as May of 2017, when she first prepares an outline of the new M-Opinion. She starts writing a draft in earnest after a meeting between Interior officials and Twin Metals executives on October 12th, 2017. She’s tasked with getting the thing done in the space of about a month, but others, like Jack Haugrud, appear to be calling the shots (as Collier makes clear on November 17th, when she writes to tell Haugrud she is “working away on editing the Twin Metals opinion according to your directions”).
Something notable happens that very evening, the new correspondence reveals. Haugrud becomes aware that Gary Lawkowski — a political appointee who at that time is serving as Counsel to Daniel Jorjani, and who worked with Jorjani at the Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce — has been working on his own draft:
So it appears that there were, at one point, two drafts of the M-Opinion in circulation, one that Collier had been working on since first making an outline in May, and then another by political appointee Gary Lawkowski. Haugrud saw it as his job to reconcile them before forwarding the opinion to Daniel Jorjani for review. It’s not clear Lawkowski’s “ideas” made it into the final draft of the M-Opinion, or what those ideas were. When we next come across Lawkowski in the records we have so far, it’s December, and he’s circulating talking points about the reversal that put the focus on strategic and critical minerals. Does that tell us something about his ideas one month previous? If so, those political arguments never made it into the final M-Opinion.
Until we see more documents, and learn more about why this matter was a priority for the Trump administration, it will also remain unclear what role political appointees like Lawkowski, Jorjani, and Zinke played in the Boundary Waters reversal. This appears to be something they are trying to keep from the public. Why?
Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.