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Interior Department gets less transparent

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke leaves office trailing a cloud of scandal for his lax attention to ethical behavior and use of public money, his former department is proposing changes to public records policies that could make it harder to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The proposed rule changes were dated the day before Zinke left office and conveniently posted in the Federal Register on the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s. An Interior Department spokeswoman said no one was available to respond to any questions unrelated to the partial government shutdown, which includes Interior. In Southern Oregon, Interior Department operations include the Bureau of Land Management, Crater Lake National Park and the Oregon Caves and Cascade-Siskiyou national monuments.

The proposed changes say the person making a FOIA request “must describe records you seek sufficiently to enable a professional employee familiar with the subject to locate the documents with a reasonable effort. Extremely broad or vague requests or requests requiring research do not satisfy this requirement.”

Then comes the clincher: “The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”

One can only assume that defining what constitutes “unreasonably burdensome” will be up to the Department of the Interior. That’s not how the Freedom of Information Act is supposed to work.

News agencies and others who make public records requests on a regular basis are already accustomed to carefully tailoring their requests to increase the chances of getting the information they seek. This change in wording just makes it clear that the agency will be able to refuse any request it does not want to fulfill simply by declaring it “unreasonably burdensome.”

The law sets out specific exemptions to disclosure, designed to protect personal privacy, classified information and trade secrets, among other things. It does not allow a government agency to refuse a request because it is too difficult.

Compounding the effect of the proposed policy changes is the official behind them. In one of his last acts as secretary, Zinke placed the department’s acting solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, in charge of handling public records requests. Jorjani has been acting solicitor since the beginning of the Donald Trump administration because the Senate has not confirmed a permanent appointee. Jorjani, who previously worked as an adviser to conservative donors Charles and David Koch, replaced the department’s chief information officer, a career civil servant, who customarily handled FOIA requests. Zinke made that change Nov. 20, just before Thanksgiving.

The changes are open for public comment until Jan. 28. Concerned about transparency in the management of federal lands? Make a comment on the Federal eRulemaking Portal,, or write to Executive Secretariat — FOIA regulations, Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20240. Refer to Docket No. DOI-2018-0017.