Tag Archives: corruption

Why I Revised Dan Rapoport’s Wikipedia Page

Reports of Latvian-American financier and Putin critic Dan Rapoport’s death are rife with contradictions and uncertainties. He fell, or jumped, or was pushed from a building on August 14th in Washington, DC. When Metropolitan Police responded to reports of a “jumper,” they found Rapoport dead in front of his apartment building, wearing orange flip-flops and a black hat and carrying his phone, car keys, and $2,620 in cash.

Entertainment journalist Yuniya Pugacheva was first to report Rapoport’s death, claiming that he had abandoned his dog Boy in a nearby park with a suicide note and some money; Rapoport’s wife Alyona disputes Pugacheva’s account along with the allegation that she and her husband were on the outs and that Dan had been spotted in London in the company of other women.

Alyona is not the only one who doubts it was suicide. Friends of Rapoport have cast doubt on Pugacheva’s account. He was, after all, well known for his criticism of Putin, his support for Alexy Navalny, and his association with other Putin opponents, such as Vladimir Ashurkov, Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

I share these suspicions but I don’t pretend to have any special knowledge or insights into Rapoport’s death. I can, however, speak to some of the sloppy reporting of the story, especially as it concerns Rapoport’s ownership of a mansion at 2449 Tracy Place NW in Washington DC.

That’s the same Kalorama mansion I’ve written about before (e.g., here, here, and here), in connection with Antofagasta’s plans to mine near the Boundary Waters.

Nearly all of the reporting I’ve seen — not just the tabloids, but publications like the Daily Beast and National Review — claims that Rapoport sold his mansion to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in 2016.

That is simply untrue. And now this untruth has been copied, pasted, translated, and spread around the world.

I wrote a long Twitter thread on the subject. You can pick it up here.

I’ve also revised Rapoport’s Wikipedia page — my attempt to create some kind of buffer against this piece of mis- or dis-information. Here’s the rewrite:

This fact check will not do much to stem the tide of sloppy clickbait journalism, I know, but why let it stand? Reaching for scandal, lazy reporters overlook corruption. They erase the true story of how Antofagasta tried to renew its mining leases near the Boundary Waters, or how the owner of that Chilean mining company purchased a luxury property in Washington, DC right after Trump’s 2016 election, then rented it to the new president’s daughter and son-in-law. They give Antofagasta, Andronico Luksic Craig, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner a pass.

The Kalorama story has worked this way since 2017, as I remarked on Twitter. Even when it gets the facts right, reporting wants to insinuate that something must be amiss at 2449 Tracy Place NW, but it fails to say what, exactly, and it rarely addresses the serious questions about ethics, foreign emoluments, and government corruption this story presents.

Update, 26 November 2022: having completed its autopsy, the DC medical examiner’s office has listed the cause of Rapoport’s “sudden” death as “undetermined.”

The Confusion at Yesterday’s House Committee on Natural Resources Hearing

There was some confusion around the testimony of Julie Padilla, Twin Metals’ Chief Regulatory Officer, at yesterday’s House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on HR 2794, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act.

Padilla originally submitted testimony stating unequivocally that “there is no potential for acid rock drainage.” Full stop. The emphasis on “no” is hers:

She then revised or, as she put it, “reframed” her written testimony to omit that sentence.

In her oral testimony, Padilla appeared to stick by her original statement, saying several times that the Twin Metals mine would pose “no” risk — “zero” risk — of acid mine drainage. Note when you are watching her testimony, however, that she is careful to qualify her original “no risk” blanket statement by adding that there is “no risk of acid rock drainage to the Boundary Waters from this project. There is zero risk to the Boundary Waters from acid rock drainage from this project.” I don’t see how that rewording safeguards the original claim, except that it allows for acid rock drainage outside the Boundary Waters.

Supporters of the McCollum bill asked about the inconsistencies and questioned Padilla’s motives, with Betty McCollum saying that Padilla “deliberately” removed the blanket statement. Padilla insisted the sentence was not eliminated, just “reframed,” and acted surprised by the contention. Here are the key exchanges:

Padilla’s complete original written testimony is here. So far, the revised — or “reframed” — testimony has not yet been posted.

What’s Behind Some of the Redactions in my Boundary Waters FOIA Case?

I guess this is what winning looks like.

The b(5) FOIA redactions I contested back in November have all been released in full. I’ve added these unredacted documents to the collection of records from my Boundary Waters FOIA case on documentcloud.

There are no earthshaking revelations here. The emails sent from David Bernhardt’s iPhone turn out to have been sent from his official email account; I suspected the agency might have redacted them to cover his use of a personal account. The redacted paragraphs in the leasing renewal documents from 1987-2005 concern Forest Service consent (or “no objection”) to the lease renewals, with some stipulations about an unresolved reclamation issue. These were public records of past decisions that were treated as if they held closely-guarded secrets.

Then there is the unredacted version of the Twin Metals Talking Points put together by Gary Lawkowski, Counselor to Solicitor Daniel Jorjani and fellow Koch network alumnus. These Talking Points were to accompany the Jorjani M-Opinion, the legal memo that determined Chilean mining giant Antofagasta plc had a non-discretionary right to renewal of its leases near the Boundary Waters. I talked a little about this redaction in a 2020 FOIA webinar. If there is a showpiece among these unredacted documents, this is it:

It’s worth asking why any of this — the letters, the email address, the Talking Points — was redacted in the first place. In previous posts I characterized these assertions of privilege as heavy handed. Interior misused, or abused, Exemption 5 redactions. Some look like a hamfisted effort to protect political appointees, like the full redaction of Lawkowksi’s Talking Points.

Why were these redacted? The Talking Points position the Twin Metals project as a source of critical minerals, criticize the Obama administration, and argue that the Jorjani reversal is “a victory for the rule of law by affirming that the government means what it says when it enters into contracts.” That last claim may be hyperbolical, but hyperbole hardly merits a coverup, and the Talking Points were written for public consumption. Trump himself would repeat the criticism of the Obama administration when he spoke in Duluth. Arguments about regulatory certainty are common enough and would have gotten a friendly reception in the business press. And as we saw just last week, when President Biden issued an executive order and the Senate held a hearing on critical minerals, there is plenty of bipartisan support for onshoring critical minerals production.

So why the sensitivity around Lawkowski’s arguments? Maybe this is just a case of a FOIA reviewer applying Exemption 5 indiscriminately. But why not roll out these talking points, and try to build public consensus around them? I can only guess that it was some mixture of incompetence, or an inability to coordinate a coherent critical minerals strategy (remember infrastructure week?), and arrogance: a sense that they didn’t owe the public explanations.

There is a world in which this could have been a political win, had the administration taken the time to build public support and rally Congressional allies around mining for the energy transition, or a new energy mix, and — this is the kicker — had it found a more legitimate route forward for the lease renewals. Instead, at every turn, they schemed behind closed doors, and they failed.

A Final Batch of Boundary Waters FOIA Records

Last week, the Biden administration determined that Antofagasta plc’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters had been improperly renewed in 2019.

Principal Deputy Solicitor of the Interior Ann Marie Bledsoe Downs found that changes made to the Bureau of Land Management’s standard lease form were irregular and amounted to giving the Chilean firm “special treatment.” She also withdrew the “flawed” Jorjani M-Opinion, M-37049; its specious claim that Antofagasta had a “non-discretionary right” to renewal of its leases, she wrote, “spurred the improper renewal decisions.” The Jorjani opinion led the agencies into a procedural and legal morass.

“As a consequence of the Jorjani M-Opinion,” Bledsoe Downs writes, the Department of the Interior ignored or sidestepped the Forest Service’s statutory consent authority. Jorjani all but eliminated this authority and swept aside the fact that the Forest Service did not consent to a renewal of the leases back in December of 2016. That determination was invalid, he claimed, because the mining company had a non-discretionary right to renewal. Not just the Forest Service, but “the United States” itself had no say. The leases had to be renewed; the Forest Service could make some stipulations, nothing more.

A small batch of Boundary Waters documents that arrived last night — the 19th supplemental release of records compelled by my FOIA lawsuit against the Department of the Interior — does not shed much new light on how these decisions were taken. This is probably the last batch of records, with the exception, maybe, of those records whose redaction I am contesting.

These records are almost entirely redacted. Nothing but black. I added them to the collection on documentcloud anyway, here.

The new records include three (totally redacted) drafts of a BLM News Release announcing the reinstatement in 2018 of Antofagasta’s mineral leases.

They also include two fully redacted memos from Mitch Leverette, Acting Eastern States Director at the Bureau of Land Management, to Tony Tooke, Chief of the US Forest Service. Even the dates are redacted on these! But we know that they must have been written between September 2017 and March 2018, during Tooke’s brief term as Chief.

The dates, but not much more than the dates, are not redacted on two DOJ communications from Lisa Russell, Chief of the Natural Resources Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Russell’s July 10, 2018 memo is addressed to Karen Hawbecker in the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior; this is followed by a 14 page draft litigation report on the Voyageur v. United States and Friends of the Boundary Waters v. BLM cases. Those cases had just been filed. Another report, from Russell at DOJ to Jeffrey Prieto, General Counsel at USDA, dated January 18, 2017, deals with Franconia Minerals v. United States, the lawsuit brought by the mining company in September, 2016, claiming a right to renewal of the mineral leases.

Though their contents have been completely obliterated, these records still tell us a little something. Both Leverette at BLM and Russell at DOJ are consulting with the Forest Service; the memos may simply bring the Forest Service into the loop of the the legal work being done at these agencies; they might well address the critical issue of its statutory authority; and in Leverette’s case, at least, the memo might reiterate the Jorjani argument that the USFS 2016 non-consent determination was invalid. The redactions make it impossible to say for certain.

When it comes to the three drafts of the BLM News Release announcing the reinstatement of Antofagasta’s leases, we have very little to work with. The news release comes from Leverette’s Eastern States division. The headline in all three cases reads: “Bureau of Land Management reinstates Minnesota mineral leases. Consideration of application for renewal also re-started.” All three drafts are marked “for immediate release.” While one of the drafts is dated May xx, 2018, two of the drafts are dated “February xx, 2018.”

The official date of the reinstatement was May 2, 2018, but we know from records I’ve previously obtained that the February draft of the news release caused a flurry of activity at the Department of Interior. For example:

The language requested by Leverette might well have been some legal justification of the reinstatement along the lines prescribed by Daniel Jorjani: Antofagasta’s leases could be reinstated because, due to a legal error, the Forest Service’s non-consent determination was invalid. Consider this paragraph from Leverette’s May 2, 2018 official Reinstatement Decision memo:

Because the BLM’s prior request for Forest Service consent was based on the legal error that the United States had discretion to decide whether to renew the leases, we informed the Forest Service that its December 2016 non-consent determination was not legally operative. The Forest Service has not objected to that conclusion.

This just leads me back to the question I asked on Twitter. Why didn’t the Forest Service object? Why didn’t it stand by its earlier conclusion? Why didn’t it make an effort to protect the integrity of the scientific study then underway? Or was there an objection that took from February to May to settle? Was that the subject of the two memos from Leverette to Tony Tooke? Did Tooke’s resignation in March 2018 help resolve the matter?

Of course, there are other explanations for the February-May delay. The federal bureaucracy is a slow-moving beast. Tooke was under siege in the last months of his career at the Forest Service and in no position to dictate terms. And, as Bledsoe Downs points out in a footnote to her legal memo, the decision to reinstate the leases was “concurred in by Joseph Balash, Dep’t of the Interior Assistant Sec’y for Land and Minerals Mgmt.” It may have taken from February to May of 2018 to obtain that concurrence.

What we do know for certain is that on May 2, 2018, on the very day the Bureau of Land Management reinstated these mineral leases, the CEO of Antofagasta plc met with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The pressure only mounted from that point on. Though Jorjani had asserted back in December of 2017 that the US Forest Service had no power to say whether the Chilean mining company’s leases should be renewed, the mining company, the agencies, the White House, and several members of Congress dedicated significant resources over the next year to making sure of that and getting Sonny Perdue to cave to their demands.

You can find all the Boundary Waters records I’ve received to date here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Our Chronic Legitimacy Crisis Might Turn Acute, Again

In the public comment I submitted last week on the Rainy River Watershed Withdrawal, I made the point that completing the withdrawal would not only help protect the Boundary Waters. It would also serve the interest of good government. A new article by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in Foreign Affairs helps set this point in the context of an unfolding American crisis.

“America,” argue Levitsky and Way, “may no longer be safe for democracy, but it remains inhospitable to autocracy.” Even so, the ongoing push toward autocracy is likely to bring a prolonged period of democratic instability and political violence. Even when they do not succeed in their autocratic ambitions, autocrats and their cronies in the public and private sector will destabilize government, undo rulemaking, and undermine legitimacy, as we saw clearly during the Trump era:

Trump proved to be as autocratic as advertised. Following the playbook of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary, he worked to corrupt key state agencies and subvert them for personal, partisan, and even undemocratic ends. Public officials responsible for law enforcement, intelligence, foreign policy, national defense, homeland security, election administration, and even public health were pressured to deploy the machinery of government against the president’s rivals. (emphasis mine)

America’s chronic legitimacy crisis could once again turn acute.

If Trump or a like-minded Republican wins the presidency in 2024 (with or without fraud), the new administration will almost certainly politicize the federal bureaucracy and deploy the machinery of government against its rivals. Having largely purged the party leadership of politicians committed to democratic norms, the next Republican administration could easily cross the line into what we have called competitive authoritarianism—a system in which competitive elections exist but incumbent abuse of state power tilts the playing field against the opposition.

Corruption and political interference at Interior and USDA around a single mining project may not rank among the most serious abuses of state power we’ve seen lately or are likely to see. But documenting and understanding what happened in the case of the Rainy River Withdrawal can help us appreciate where things might be heading.

Public Comment on the Rainy River Watershed Withdrawal

My written comments ran to five pages, so instead of posting them here, I put them online as a PDF, which you can read here. I also made a three-minute comment in the live session hosted by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service this afternoon. My comments focus mainly on the story I’ve been pursuing for the past few years — a story of corruption. The first couple of paragraphs convey the general idea:

Federal lands in the Rainy River Watershed should be withdrawn from disposition under US mineral and geothermal leasing laws for the proposed initial twenty-year period, if not permanently. This is an overdue decision, grounded in science, economics, law, and environmental ethics.

Why, then, hasn’t it already happened? How did this withdrawal process, which started in 2017, go off track? Agency records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show clearly that a foreign mining company, Antofagasta plc, acted to prevent the withdrawal; and from 2017-2021, members of Congress and the executive branch ran political interference on its behalf. Decisions taken behind closed doors during that period served foreign private interests, not the American public interest. The agencies now have an opportunity to rectify the situation.

I end with three recommendations:

The announcement on October 20, 2021, that the Biden administration will complete the “science-based environmental analysis” was encouraging. Given all the political interference, the two-year study really ought to have been started all over again, from scratch, in the interest of scientific integrity. At the very least, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release – unredacted — the preliminary findings of the canceled two-year scientific study, so that they can be compared with the new and complete analysis.

As agencies work toward a science-based decision on the twenty-year withdrawal, they also need to take additional steps to restore public confidence and guard against undue influence. As a first step, the USDA Inspector General could review Secretary Perdue’s decision to cancel the 2017 withdrawal process and report on scientific independence, ethical conduct, and political interference at the agency.

Finally, the agencies can help raise standards. Industry repeatedly assures us that non-ferrous mining in the Rainy River Watershed and elsewhere can be done “responsibly,” and there are a growing number of calls, from Congress and from within the Biden administration, for “responsible mining” for the transition to renewables. How should government respond? Rigorous and practical guidance for agencies on the law and ethics as well as the technical and scientific aspects of “responsible mining” would be a good start.

Here is a recording of my three-minute live comment, which tracks all this pretty closely. Video is cued to the mark.

The Boundary Waters, Offshore: Luksic in the Pandora Papers

A chart of Luksic-connected offshore entities included with the CIPER report.

Last week, El Centro de Investigación Periodística (CIPER) published an investigative report on the offshore financial activities of Andronico Luksic Craig and the Luksic family, based on the Pandora Papers — a trove of over 11 million records leaked from tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. The investigation cast some new light on the elaborate network of offshore corporations, foundations, law firms, and corporate services companies involved in managing some of the Luksic family’s vast fortune, and brought me back to some of the records I’d uncovered in connection with Luksic’s purchase of the Washington, DC mansion where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump lived while serving in the Trump White House.

Luksic acquired that $5.5 million Kalorama property right after Trump won the 2016 election, right around the time Kushner-Trump were preparing for their move to the nation’s capital and at a critical moment when Antofagasta plc, the Chilean mining company controlled by Luksic, was counting on the Trump administration to reverse policies of the Obama administration (which it duly did). This neat arrangement may not have been a simple quid pro quo, a mansion provided in return for government approvals to mine copper and nickel on the edge of the Boundary Waters, but even to the casual observer it looks an awful lot like a foreign emolument. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the matter never underwent a formal ethics review. (More on all that here, here, and here.)

While these new documents do not directly shed light on the Kalorama emolument, they provide some insight into how Luksic’s control of Antofagasta is connected to offshore schemes and how the Kalorama mansion might figure into a network of Luksic-controlled US property holdings.

One company called out in the CIPER investigation, FDMDA Corp, looks like a more elaborate version of a company I came across in Boston property records, LDMD Corp, which was registered as the owner of two Avery Street properties from 2011 to 2013. FDMDA carries the first initials of the names of Luksic’s five children, while LDMD appears to have been created solely for the male heirs. (I am assuming the L in LDMD stands for Andronico Luksic, the first-born son, with DMD representing Davor, Maximiliano, and Dax.) Two others, Beacon Eagle Corporation and Avery Eagle Corporation, also look like another iteration of Boston property-holding companies formed by Luksic attorneys, Avery Bicentennial Corp and The Avery Millennium Corp.

These corporations owned and still own condominiums on Avery and Beacon streets in Boston. The Beacon Street property includes a penthouse that Luksic (or, rather, Avery Bicentennial) purchased from quarterback Tom Brady in 2012 — which is right around the time that Luksic says he and Donald Trump “said hello” or exchanged a greeting at a New England Patriots’ game, where they would have been guests of Brady, a mutual acquaintance, or of billionaire owner Robert Kraft. So Brady connects Luksic to Trump — suggesting there might be a little more to the Kalorama mansion story than serendipity. What’s not clear is how the entities formed around the Boston properties, or even Luksic’s Miami and Washington DC properties, might be legally connected with the two Eagle companies mentioned in the Pandora Papers.

On April 28, 2017, FDMDA Corp and Beacon Eagle Corporation were relocated from the British Virgin Islands to Liechtenstein, where they were subsumed under an entity called The Lazare Tcherniak Foundation. (The disposition of Avery Eagle remains unclear.) The Lazare Tcherniak Foundation “provides for the economic furtherance of the descendants of Nadia Malvine Tcherniak” — Patricia Lederer Tcherniak is Luksic’s ex-wife and mother of his five children — “that bear the name Luksic as their first or second name and that are also biological descendants of Andronico Luksic Abaroa [Andronico Luksic Craig’s father]. They are all members of a generally defined and fully discretionary class of beneficiaries.”

While Beacon Eagle appears to be bound up with US-based real estate investments, FDMDA Corp. serves Lazare Tcherniak Foundation beneficiaries by managing and distributing stock dividends. Records reviewed by CIPER describe the source of FDMDA Corp’s funds as “mining activities in the Republic of Chile. The funds are mainly dividends indirectly received from Antofagasta plc, a public company listed on the London Stock Exchange.” Here, “indirectly” probably indicates that there is an entity — a partnership — to which the Antofagasta plc dividends are paid before they are distributed, in whole or in part, to the Liechtenstein-based FDMDA Corp.

Of course, all of this appears to be perfectly legal, as Andronico Luksic himself pointed out in a tweet responding to the CIPER report.

While technically true (“Liechtenstein is NOT a tax haven” because Chilean tax authorities don’t include it in their list of tax havens), this statement was rapidly ratioed. Along with President Sebastian Piñera’s own exposure in the Pandora Papers, Luksic’s exposure and his carefully lawyered response just provide more fodder for the debate over inequality in Chile.

Luksic’s  October 6 statement also prompts questions about corporate governance, the extent of the Luksic Group’s reach, and its attendant responsibilities. With a controlling interest in Antofagasta plc, the Luksic Group can easily thwart any shareholder resolutions not to its liking and effectively determine how the company and its subsidiaries are run, all from behind the scenes and with little accountability. That is shadow governance, and it’s the very model of corporate governance that Antofagasta brings to its Twin Metals project near the Boundary Waters.

Postscript. Oct 20, 2021. The same elaborate network of Luksic foundations, offshore companies, tax havens, and investment vehicles is evident in the disclosures filed by Antofagasta’s three lobbying firms: Brownstein Hyatt, Wilmer Hale, and The Daschle Group. I addressed the topic in this Twitter thread:

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

The Latest Records in my Boundary Waters FOIA Case

This morning, after some prodding, Interior sent the 18th supplemental production of records in my Boundary Waters FOIA case. This release numbers only 108 pages. I reviewed the documents this morning in this Twitter thread.

At the moment, the biggest takeaway for me is that we still don’t know nearly enough about coordination among the Department of Interior, the Trump White House, and the USDA, and how politics — and pressure from the mining company — played into the Trump administration’s decisions around Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.

Today’s release shows that legal memoranda from the mining company on the mineral withdrawal circulated at Interior just days before Solicitor Daniel Jorjani met with David Bernhardt’s close associate Michael J. Catanzaro, then with the Executive Office of the President, and Stephen Vaden, an attorney at USDA who seems to have been charged with keeping Sonny Perdue apprised of developments on this front.

Perdue had promised Representative Betty McCollum in May of 2017 that “we are absolutely allowing [the mineral withdrawal study] to proceed.” By August of 2017, the mining company had offered a whole host of legal arguments that would help Perdue move away from that declaration. But remarkably enough, he didn’t take that route. Instead, in September of 2018, after a year-long pressure campaign, he abruptly cancelled the two-year mineral withdrawal study, then in its eighteenth month, and declared the Rainy River Watershed open to new exploration. Why? Probably because Trump had publicly fingered him, on a May 2018 visit to Duluth: “It’s now up to Secretary Perdue, and I know he’s looking at it very strongly.” It was clear enough what Sonny Perdue had to do. Where legal arguments had failed, coercion succeeded.

I still believe Secretary Vilsack ought to ask the USDA Inspector General to look into the matter, because there’s pretty clear evidence that Perdue acted corruptly, or at least arbitrarily and at the caprice of the president, but it’s seeming less likely Vilsack will do the right thing. Secretary Vilsack has steered clear of making any comments about mining near the Boundary Waters, citing ongoing litigation in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt and the review of the matter that Interior is undertaking in connection with that litigation — which is now supposed to be completed by October 22, according to court filings. But as I have said repeatedly, the Secretary as head of a federal agency has an independent obligation to the American public and does not need permission from another agency to investigate corruption at the one he leads.

The new records are here.

And all the Boundary Waters FOIA records I’ve obtained to date are here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Are We Ever Going to Find Out How the Boundary Waters Reversal Really Went Down?

I can make a few additions to the Twin Metals timeline based on the latest release of records in my FOIA case against the Department of Interior, and I hope to get around to that soon. For those who would like to review these documents for themselves, the 16th supplemental production in Galdieri v. Dept. of Interior is online here; and all the public records concerning the Trump administration’s actions on Antofagasta’s mineral leases I’ve obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests may be found here.

This new set of records dates from the final months of 2017, when attorneys at the Department of the Interior are drafting, editing, and preparing to release the M-Opinion that would reverse the Obama administration’s actions and grant Chilean mining company Antofagasta, Plc “non-discretionary right” to a third renewal of its Twin Metals mineral leases. The emails included here span the period from then-Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s briefing on the matter in early October 2017 to the release of the M-Opinion in late December.

We get a little more detail here about the Bernhardt briefing — or, at least, evidence of continued sensitivity around it. For example, DOI has redacted the phrase that Karen Hawbecker used to describe one of the briefing documents. 

Why the redaction? Why should this phrase be subject to Exemption 5?  It refers to a document dated August 9, 2017, and its title is clearly indicated in the list of attachments: “Draft Lease Renewal Scenarios w[ith] comment.” How did Hawbecker characterize these scenarios?* Or could this be a case of sloppy redaction, where the reviewer did not notice the paper title in the list of attachments? If so, why should the reviewer not want to indicate that David Bernhardt was presented with a list of “lease renewal scenarios” prepared in August 2017?

Clearly, legal issues as well as political sensitivities were at play, and still are. In December 2017, the Solicitor’s office brings Ron Mulach, Office of the General Counsel at USDA, into the loop; OGC makes some changes to the letter the Bureau of Land Management will send to the Forest Service, notifying them of the new disposition. Other communications with attorneys at the Department of Justice, most likely regarding ongoing litigation, were not included in this release because they will “require consultation” with DOJ, according to the letter accompanying these records. A December 5 note about comments received on the draft from the Environmental and Natural Resources Division and a query from an ENRD attorney asking when the new M-Opinion will be issued are among the traces of those communications.

These documents also heighten the impression that there might have been some tension between political appointees and career attorneys at DOI in that first year of the Trump administration. Duplicates of some previously released emails show Gary Lawkowski, the political appointee who was then serving as Counselor to fellow Koch alumnus Daniel Jorjani, running some kind of independent operation within DOI. Lawkowski asks to see the mineral leases in November. He then drafted, or announced that he was drafting, his own version of the M-Opinion, which appears to have created confusion. As we know, he also floated the idea that the new M-Opinion should be positioned as a critical minerals play. While Lawkowski is pushing that industry-friendly line, Richard McNeer, who has been with the Solicitor’s Office since 1998, suggests including some talking points about how the public can make its views known to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

Overall, then, this latest release contributes to the impression that the Boundary Waters reversal was a political project from the get-go. We still don’t know enough about the forces behind that project or about the ways it connected with other schemes run behind the facade of government during the last administration. I remain convinced there is a larger, untold story here, but I am less confident than I was a few months ago that the current administration is going to pull back the curtain or investigate how this all went down.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

*Update, 23 June 2021: It turns out we know exactly how this email read before it was redacted this time around.

And among the documents I’ve obtained is a fully redacted copy of the scenarios paper. It’s entitled “Twin Metals Potential Scenarios for Lease Renewal.” The title almost suggests that Twin Metals (or, more likely, Antofagasta’s WilmerHale lobbyists) provided the scenarios or developed them with Karen Hawbecker.

Perhaps the “comments” included were Hawbecker’s comments on scenarios created by lobbyists or with them? It’s worth noting that these scenarios emerge in the workflow at the Solicitor’s office just a couple of weeks after a July 25, 2017 meeting with Antofagasta, as the timeline shows. Did Antofagasta executives and their lobbyists arrive with these scenarios in hand? Were the scenarios the subject of the meeting?

In any case, Karen Hawbecker worked on the scenarios and forwarded them as separate documents, as scenarios 1, 2A, 2B, and 3, on August 6 and 7 2017 to Jack Haugrud, correspondence shows. The scenarios were then combined into the scenarios paper. Haugrud offers his opinion (“Karen, I”) in some back and forth with Hawbecker on August 7, 2017 that is also redacted.

So the latest redaction only served to direct my attention to these documents and raise the question why there should be sensitivity around them now. It would be troubling if attorneys at Interior were now trying to cover their tracks after following Antofagasta’s lead during the Trump era.

Federal Agencies Need to Deliver Themselves from the Legal and Ethical Morass Trump and his Cronies Left Them In

The 15th supplemental release of Boundary Waters documents in my FOIA case against the Department of Interior arrived yesterday. I’ve added the documents to documentcloud. Were I to characterize these records as disappointing, I might only be admitting that I still expect too much from them. Still, this release looks especially untidy, and there may be something going on behind the scenes — some change in staffing, for example — that I am not aware of.

First, the attorney assigned to my case in US District Court contacted me a couple of weeks ago to let me know that this production would be a few days late. When it came, the response letter, which accompanies every release and describes how many pages were reviewed, how many withheld, what exemptions were used, and so on, was missing. (Someone just forgot to attach it to the email, which begins “Attached is the Solicitor’s 15th Production response letter….”). The documents come from Brianna Collier, a career attorney in the Office of the Solicitor — who has been the main custodian of records in this case. We only catch glimpses of what Trump’s political appointees were doing when Collier is in the loop.

The documents themselves are heavily redacted, with deliberative process (b)(5) claimed throughout. Excerpts from Hein’s Legal Research Guides are the only records not redacted. They would be available publicly anyway. What can only be an earlier draft of the 19 page M-Opinion by then-Solicitor Daniel Jorjani dated December 5, 2017 is completely redacted. We know from the timeline that the memo was nearly finished by then, but instead of taking time to redact just those phrases and paragraphs which were still under deliberation, the FOIA officer applied a very broad brush on all 19 pages.

The FOIA officer took a slightly less aggressive approach to an August 7, 2018 memo written by Ryan Sklar on the Forest Service’s application to segregate 234,328 acres of federal land within Superior National Forest. This is the land withdrawn from mineral leasing and development while the US Forest Service completed “the necessary environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA).” The law is clear. Sklar explains in a footnote:

Just one month later, of course, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue would cancel the two-year assessment, claiming that “the analysis did not reveal new scientific information.” So far, we have had to take Sonny Perdue’s word for it; the findings of the cancelled withdrawal study still have not been released. The cancellation meant that any “final decision” on the application for mineral withdrawal would be made without a complete case file — without the complete NEPA document. And without a “final” NEPA document, review would likely be guided by political considerations, not scientific evidence.

Except for an intriguing closing sentence, the discussion section here is fully redacted:

There’s not much to go on here, except Sklar’s final note: discussions of “next steps” around the Rainy River Watershed withdrawal were “ongoing” just one month before Sonny Perdue abruptly cancelled the application. There were, at that point, five months to go in the review required by NEPA, and pressure on Sonny Perdue was at its peak, with Trump publicly directing Perdue to look at the withdrawal “very strongly” and reassuring Minnesota mining proponents that they would “do very well.” Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Rick Nolan, and Paul Gosar kept the pressure on Perdue behind the scenes.

It’s unlikely Sklar’s legal memo refers explicitly to that pressure campaign, but it’s also hard to believe that he or anyone working on this issue at Interior was unaware of it.

The agencies now need to deliver themselves from the legal and ethical morass Trump and his cronies left them in. Secretary of the Interior Haaland should ask BLM to request a complete case file from the US Forest Service, with the necessary NEPA analysis, so that BLM can evaluate and review the withdrawal and so that she can make a lawful decision. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release the preliminary findings of the cancelled two-year scientific study, unredacted. He should also ask the USDA Inspector General to review Perdue’s decision to cancel the withdrawal application and NEPA analysis. And though it’s unlikely they will do everything they should to set things right — that’s a tall order, and they’ve inherited a mess —  we can expect some steps in this direction before the end of next month, when the stay in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt expires.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.