August 11, 2020

Wyden and Grijalva on New Interior Inspector General Report: Officials “Orchestrated A Cover-up To Protect Secretary Bernhardt During His Confirmation”

Lawmakers call for criminal investigation into whether Daniel Jorjani perjured himself before Congress when he assured the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that there was no 'heightened' FOIA review process

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., today called for a criminal investigation into Interior Solicitor General Daniel Jorjani after a new report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) confirmed that DOI political appointees may have violated a court order by withholding documents to protect Secretary David Bernhardt during his confirmation process. The IG’s findings further clarify that Jorjani misled the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about his role in reviewing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) productions during his confirmation. 

Wyden, a senior member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Grijalava, Chair of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, issued the following joint statement:

“Not since the Teapot Dome scandal have we seen a more corrupt Interior Department. Political appointees at the agency have put their ideologically-based personal interests over the interests of the American people, violating the public trust upon which the Department of the Interior is based.

“Officials at Interior are now on the record admitting what we suspected all along: they orchestrated a cover-up to protect Secretary Bernhardt during his confirmation, and all but lied to Congress about it. We call on the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into whether or not Jorjani perjured himself before Congress when he assured the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that there was no 'heightened' FOIA review process.”

The new OIG report outlines the findings of its investigation regarding alleged interference in the FOIA process, including:

  • Shortly after the nomination of David Bernhardt to become Secretary of the Interior, “then Counselor to the Secretary Hubbel Relat directed staff from the DOI’s Office of the Solicitor (SOL) and members of the DOI’s FOIA staff to temporarily withhold documents related to Bernhardt from an upcoming release of documents” from a February 2019 FOIA production.
  • One attorney advisor “recalled being told later that Relat’s direction to withhold Bernhardt-related documents in the FOIA litigation was because Bernhardt was awaiting his confirmation hearing. The attorney also remembered that this direction from Relat was to remain in place until after Bernhardt’s confirmation.”
  • Relat admitted to the OIG: “[M]y approach was that information that we have a legal obligation to disclose, . . . we disclose . . . and release. No questions asked, . . . but that sensitive information that we’re not legally obligated to disclose, we should treat more strategically in terms of when and how . . . it’s disclosed . . . this is an approach that I discussed with Dan Jorjani.”
  • While Daniel Jorjani said he didn’t remember explicitly discussing the order with Relat, he stated: “Either I came up with the idea—and I would like to think I’m smart enough to do that—or Hubbel [Relat], being proactive, said, ‘Oh, can we do this compliantly and consistent with the court’s direction,’ and then ran it past me. . . . It would be one of those two, I would think.”

During his confirmation hearing, members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked Mr. Jorjani about his involvement in reviewing FOIA requests. In response to one question, Mr. Jorjani confirmed that he served as the Department's Chief FOIA Officer but stated, “I, myself, don't review FOIAs or make determinations.” In response to written follow-up questions from Wyden, Mr. Jorjani repeatedly stated “any review that is conducted is done so in accordance with the Department's Awareness Review Process for Freedom of Information Act productions issued in May 24, 2018, and updated on February 28, 2019.”  Mr. Jorjani also explicitly denied the existence of any “heightened” awareness review process beyond the Department’s written policy. The Inspector General’s findings today confirm that Mr. Jorjani’s statements to Congress were not truthful.