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Bernhardt defends Interior Department's public records review policy

WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary David Bernhardt defended on Wednesday the agency's policy allowing politically appointed officials to review and comment on public records requests that relate to them.

Appearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee to testify about his department's budget, Bernhardt said the so-called "awareness review" policy was legal.

"It's a process that's very long-standing in the department," Bernhardt told the committee. "We definitely formalized it," he said. "It's completely legal."

As CQ Roll Call reported Wednesday, Interior has through this policy for about a year let political staffers review documents before they are released to the public under Freedom of Information Act requests.

First Amendment experts say the policy could trigger lawsuits and break open-records laws. An office within the National Park Service warned in a December memo that the policy was "preventing" it from meeting its legal deadlines under FOIA.


"Such delays leave the NPS open to potential litigation," the memo reads in part.

Citing CQ Roll Call reporting, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said the practice "raises real questions of illegality" and asked if there was legal justification to undergird it.

Bernhardt replied the policy was on safe legal ground, but said he was troubled it may delay the completion of FOIA requests.

"What is troubling to me when I read that article this morning was the concept that it would be slowing the reviews down, because that's not what the policy says," he said.


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