The Interior Department purposely withheld what it called “sensitive” public documents related to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ahead of his Senate confirmation, an agency watchdog office concluded in a report made public Tuesday.
While the Interior Department says the move did not violate the law or ethical standards, Democratic lawmakers called it a cover-up to smooth Bernhardt's April 2019 Senate confirmation and called for the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation.
“Not since the Teapot Dome scandal have we seen a more corrupt Interior Department," Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona said in a statement, referencing the 1920s corruption scandal. “Political appointees at the agency have put their ideologically-based personal interests over the interests of the American people.”
The findings by the agency's inspector general conclude the agency temporarily withheld 253 pages from documents it released last year under a federal court order. The court order came after someone not identified in Tuesday's report sued the Interior Department in federal court on allegations the agency wasn't fully complying with a 2017 open-records request.
Daniel Jorjani, head of the agency's legal office, defended delaying release of the records involving Bernhardt ahead of his confirmation, telling the agency's investigators that the agency was within its rights “to strategically release that information” and time the release of public records. Jorjani told investigators he didn't know if Bernhardt was aware of the agency's decision to time the release to his Senate confirmation.
Tuesday's report didn't identify the court case or detail what was in the withheld documents.
Bernhardt, a former lawyer and lobbyist, had been criticized by Democrats and advocacy groups for his business ties to private industry and energy companies regulated by the department. His confirmation process was sometimes heated, and included environmental activists attending hearings in lizard-like monster suits to drive home their charge that Bernhardt was a “swamp creature.” The Republican-led Senate confirmed Bernhardt by a 56-41 vote.
The Interior Department and some other agencies under the Trump administration, as in some previous administrations, have implemented closer, higher-level review of any requests for public records under the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, that relate to political appointees in the agency, the watchdog report notes. Environmental groups and news organizations have accused federal agencies under Trump of maneuvering to block release of documents about government actions.