In response to a FOIA request I made back in April, the Department of the Interior has released Gareth Rees’ 2017 work calendar. Rees has served as Executive Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior since George W. Bush’s first term. He did not arrive with the so-called “beachhead” teams brought in by the current administration with the express mission of sabotaging and dismantling the government agencies entrusted to their care. Still, his calendar (which I’ve put up here, on DocumentCloud) adds more pieces to the puzzle.
Rees’ calendar drew my attention to a couple of meetings I hadn’t noticed before and which are now represented on the timeline. There is a June 15, 2017 meeting at Interior with a group called Jobs for Minnesotans — a front for the building trades that is currently lobbying for both the Twin Metals project near the Boundary waters and the Polymet project to the south, near Hoyt Lakes. Jobs for Minnesotans is a 501c4 “social welfare” or dark money organization of the kind I’ve written about in connection with mining projects in Michigan and Wisconsin. As a 2016 Pro Publica report suggests, these organizations are designed for those who prefer backroom deals to sunlight. 501c4s like Jobs for Minnesotans are used to channel money from private interests into public process, and coordinate localized efforts to remove environmental protections and undo regulation through regional and national networks.
A May 2, 2017 meeting with Antofagasta plc has also been added to the timeline. This meeting brought together representatives of the Chilean conglomerate with a large group of officials at the Department of the Interior just one month after Interior appears to have taken up the matter. Apparently meeting with Antofagasta was a priority. The company’s subsidiaries Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals had sued the Department of Interior in February of 2017. The complaint makes the mining companies’ position abundantly clear. And yet administration officials seem to have been anxious to sit down with the Chilean parent company and discuss its leases. Why? (It’s not likely that the same courtesy will be extended to the ten Minnesota plaintiffs now complaining that in reinstating Antofagasta’s leases the Department of Interior exceeded its lawful authority and acted in an arbitrary and capricious way.)
The first meeting with Antofagasta, in early May, appears to have set the agenda; the second meeting with Antofagasta, on July 25th, looks as if it were called to reach an agreement. The July meeting with Antofagasta includes all Interior officials present at the May 2nd meeting as well as some important decision makers: Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Michael Nedd, and Edward Passarelli, Deputy Chief at the Natural Resources Section of the Department of Justice.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Department of Interior worked steadily and closely behind closed doors with lobbyists and mining executives to renew Antofagasta’s mineral leases in Superior National Forest. This would conform to the general pattern at Interior under Zinke’s leadership. “A deeply problematic culture of secrecy…has taken root in the Department of the Interior,” the organization Earthjustice charges, “keeping the American public in the dark about major decisions, important records, and meetings with industry that affect the lands and resources the agency holds in trust for the American people.”
In this case, the mining company ran a full court press; the public was kept almost entirely out of the process. The deed appears to have been done well before the end of summer 2017. The legal review that would result in the Jorjani Memo of December 22nd appears to have been nothing more than an exercise in a foregone conclusion — a sham.