Tag Archives: Exemption 5

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.

Another Political Appointee’s Calendar Among New Boundary Waters Documents

In response to my Boundary Waters FOIA case, the US Department of the Interior today released another 446 pages. I put them online here.

This release includes the 2017 calendar of Timothy Williams, a political operative who came to the Department of Interior via the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and Trump’s 2016 campaign in Nevada. “Although Williams doesn’t appear to have experience working on issues that fall within the purview of Interior,” notes the watchdog Department of Influence site, “the department’s press release announcing his hire advertises that Williams is an ‘avid sportsman and accomplished hunter and fisherman.'” Williams is now Principal Deputy Director at the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at the Interior Department. Last year he was the subject of an ethics complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center.

According to an email accompanying it, Williams’ calendar was scheduled to be released and posted (presumably to the Department’s calendar site) on August 31, 2018, but I don’t see it there and can’t find it elsewhere online. Maybe its release was held up for some reason. In any case it’s new to me, and even at first glance, Williams calendar will allow me to make some additions to the Twin Metals timeline. For example, a June 22, 2017 meeting Williams had with Chad Horrell of the DCI Group (on behalf of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters) and a “quick huddle” on December 21, 2017 to discuss the Solicitor’s reversal of the M-Opinion along with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the signing of a Secretarial Order.

Taking a broader view, what I said the other day about the last release can also be said of this one: this looks more like a document dump than a meaningful and organized response to my request. The release includes another multiple page spread sheet of FOIA requests sent out for review by Justin Wilkinson from the Secretary’s FOIA Office under the FOIA Awareness policy. The only noteworthy thing about this item might be that it demonstrates, once again, that the claims about custody and control advanced by Interior in the initial stages of this case are claims of convenience, and the firewall between the Office of the Secretary and the Solicitor’s Office is a lot more permeable than they pretended.

The Office of the Solicitor is withholding 16 pages in full. It’s possible from the emails included here to guess what some of those documents are: for example, a “proposed agenda” attached to an August 28, 2018 email from an attorney at the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division is probably among the withheld documents. But I can’t be sure, of course, because the letter from the FOIA office specifies only that some documents are being withheld, not which documents. I’m also unsure whether these documents or other redactions and documents withheld under Exemption 5 will be covered by the Supreme Court’s pending decision in US Fish and Wildlife v. Sierra Club; and from what I am reading, it’s likely that decision will protect deliberative process at the cost of greater transparency.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

Heavy-Handed Assertions of Privilege

 

With Aaron’s encouragement, I wrote on June 23 and again yesterday to Lance Purvis, Office of the Solicitor FOIA Officer at the Department of the Interior, asking about the redaction of what are essentially public relations exercises: Talking Points and a “brief blurb” drafted by Gary Lawkowski in December of 2017 to explain the reversal of the Obama administration’s legal opinion on Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.

The redacted documents, which I posted on Twitter and included in a previous post, are marked with Exemption (b) (5). This covers attorney/client, attorney work product, or deliberative process privilege; and it is intended to protect documents that are pre-decisional, or unfinalized, where someone at an agency seeks legal advice for formulating policy, or where agency officials deliberate about a policy or decision.

Though Gary Lawkowski is an attorney and was at that time working for Solicitor Daniel Jorjani — they are fellow travelers from the Koch Brothers-backed Freedom Partners — these public-facing communications do not constitute legal advice for formulating policy. Can they be withheld as internal agency deliberations? Only if they are pre-decisional and their release would confuse the public about steps the agency decided not to take; and that would be a real stretch, as these documents explain a decision already taken, namely, the new legal opinion. So how can communications of this kind, talking points and blurbs intended for public consumption, be covered by Exemption 5?

The most relevant case in the Justice Department’s own archive of court decisions on Exemption 5 appears to be Fox News Network LLC v. Dept of Treasury. This was a 2012 case that dealt directly with the assertion of Exemption 5 to withhold public relations documents and communiques. The outcome was mixed: the court granted and denied motions for summary judgment in part for both the plaintiff and the defendant.

The documents at issue relate to press releases, inquiries from the press, and related e-mails, which were withheld because “they reflect ‘how best to present Treasury’s position.’  In an earlier decision [a 2010 decision on Fox v. Treasury which Judge Frank Maas refers to as Fox I], the court explained “that communication concerning how to present agency policies to the press or public, although deliberative, typically do not qualify as substantive policy decisions protected by the deliberative process privilege.” The court states: “Drafts of public relations documents therefore may properly be withheld if their release would reveal the status of internal agency deliberations or substantive policy matters.” Applying these principles, the court finds that disclosure of drafts of certain press releases and related e-mails would “reveal the evolution of Treasury’s thinking regarding the proposed restructuring of the AIG investments.” However, where it cannot be “shown that the materials relate to anything other than past events…[and] there is no indication that the ‘public response’ about which the author speaks involves policy action, rather than mere messaging[,]…documents are not entitled to protection under the deliberative process privilege.” [emphasis mine]

 A full week has gone by without reply or even acknowledgement. These documents are being released as part of an agreement reached in my pro se FOIA lawsuit against the Trump administration, so the issue will need to be addressed. And while these heavy-handed assertions of privilege may seem small and not worth arguing over — what are we going to learn from those talking points that we don’t already know? — they are part of a larger pattern of abuse.