WASHINGTON -- Documents sought under the Freedom of Information Act were withheld by the Interior Department under a practice that allowed political appointees to review the requests, internal emails and memos show.
The policy allowed high-ranking officials to screen documents sought by news organizations, advocacy groups and whistleblowers, including files set to be released under court deadlines. In some cases, the documents' release was merely delayed. In other cases, documents were withheld after the reviews.
CQ Roll Call first reported on the "awareness review" policy in May, but a new trove of emails show documents were plucked from release following the screenings.
Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog, said after reviewing some of the emails that Congress should investigate if Interior is violating FOIA.
"Are there bad actors at these agencies that are willfully ignoring the law?" Hempowicz said. "I think we need to get to the bottom of why it's happening and that's going to instruct how to fix it."
An Interior spokeswoman said the department has no policy that requires political officials to approve the release of records under FOIA.
The department, spokeswoman Molly Block said Monday, "does not have an affirmative response requirement from political officials, and has not had such a policy in this administration. ... Any suggestion to the contrary is clearly driven by political motives."
"Because there have apparently been misunderstandings about this question, including in prior administrations, the Awareness Review Process was formalized in writing for the first time by this administration," she said in an email. "This policy is posted on the department website for all to see, and clearly states that a reviewer has no more than three working days to conclude his or her review. Thereafter the decision to release responsive records is made by a career, nonpolitical FOIA officer, in conjunction with the advice of a career, nonpolitical departmental attorney."
The policy, which was formalized in May 2018 and updated in February, does not specifically say if documents may or may not be withheld after review.
But internal Interior emails, notes and memos Earthjustice gathered through a lawsuit and provided to CQ Roll Call show political staffers regularly delayed the release of government records. In some cases, records were prevented from release following the reviews.