Government Watchdog Sues Interior for Secretary Haaland’s Lack of Transparency, Meeting Records

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks during the opening ceremony of 'In America: Remember,' a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19 near the Washington Monument on September 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. The concept of artist Suzanne Brennan …
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PTPT) filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning to force the U.S. Department of the Interior to hand over Secretary Deb Haaland’s calendar, meetings, and travel information, per the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“Political interference may be behind Interior’s roadblocks to releasing information readily available in previous administrations,” the press release from PTPT stated, citing comments from Interior’s communications director, Melissa Schwartz, that “indicate potential interference by political appointees” and a “lack of transparency.”

PTPT’s lawsuit notes that previous administrations have regularly made this information available to the public but that “the American public currently has access only to a skeleton version of Secretary Haaland’s first two weeks, with no information provided for the nearly six months since.”

Departmental leaders’ visitor logs, calendars, and other information are typically made public so as not to give the impression of impropriety and political influence from outside the departments.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. From left, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. From left, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Biden. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The pertinent comments from Schwartz come from her participation in a webinar with the Society of Environmental Journalists, wherein she said, in part, “To be candid, we are getting our feet under us. We’ve had some shifts in different positions … Sometimes the data dump for FOIA … just doesn’t look as nice as a communications professional might want it to look.” Apparently more concerned with aesthetics than transparency, Schwartz continued to say, “Also, sort of navigating what the rules might be of taking up a FOIA on her calendar and actually making it more pleasant to the eye.”

“We actually did have something up and then it wasn’t inclusive enough and then we took it down,” Schwartz continued. “Just trying to sort of navigate how much to include, whether or not people‘s personally identifiable information needs to be redacted and what that looks [like].”

PTPT Director Michael Chamberlain said of Interior’s lack of transparency that “Compliance with public information laws isn’t supposed to happen merely at the convenience of federal agencies or their press shops. It’s a legal obligation.”

Moreover, the group’s press release details then-Rep. Haaland’s (D-NM) time on the House Natural Resources Committee, where she “and her colleagues lodged multiple complaints regarding online calendars they believed were delayed or provided insufficient detail.” Indeed, such requests were made for the Trump administration’s Interior nominee and Haaland’s predecessor, David Bernhardt.

The Associated Press

In this April 23, 2021, file photo Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

“The Department’s resistance to legitimate requests for information, in this and other instances, combined with the comments by Haaland’s communications team points to a broader lack of transparency,” Chamberlain continued. “The American public deserves much better than what Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior is delivering.”

According to PTPT’s lawsuit, “FOIA provides that a requesting party is entitled to a substantive agency response within twenty working days, including a determination of whether the agency intends to comply with the request.” Despite this statutory requirement, PTPT alleges that Haaland’s Interior Department has not responded adequately in the several months since she took the helm.

The case is Protect the Public’s Trust v. United States Department of the Interior (No. 21 – 2534) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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