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What Are Interior Secretary Zinke and His Department Hiding From the American People?

The corruption of Ryan Zinke

Keeping up with the happenings of the Trump administration is like watching a soap opera. There is plenty of drama. The latest occurrences of the Interior Department, led by Ryan Zinke, prove to be no less drama-filled than the rest of the administration. The Interior Department requested permission from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to delete public records.

The Interior Department has been slow in responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, or in some cases, have not responded at all. Only 10.53 percent of FOIA requests submitted by Western Values Project, a Montana-based conservation group, have been fulfilled by the Interior Department. And there are 132 FOIA requests WVP submitted to Interior that are still outstanding. Some FOIA requests date back to May 2017.

Apparently, Zinke and his colleagues at the Interior Department have much to hide as they want permission from NARA to destroy records relating to oil and gas leases sales, mineral exploration permits, legal matters, fish and wildlife surveys, and other issues. Thousands of pages of emails from Zinke and his aides, released by Interior during a FOIA request and later redacted, reveal that senior Interior officials dismissed evidence that national monuments the Interior sought to shrink increase tourism and archaeological discoveries, the Washington Post reported. The emails also revealed that Zinke and his aides emphasized the commercial value of the national monuments, such as energy development.

Flying in the face of transparency

CNN reported that Zinke has left several meetings from his official calendar, including his first meeting as Secretary with Chris Cox, the executive director of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm. Despite being left off his official schedule, we know about the meetings from internal memos and notes released through an FOIA request. As CNN put it, leaving meetings off of an official calendar “goes against the usual practice of a Cabinet secretary and flies in the face of transparency practices.”

Western Values Project has repeatedly stood up to the Interior Department. The organization recently submitted a formal comment to NARA concerning the Interior Department’s request to destroy records.

“The request covers documents going back more than 50 years from every agency within the Department of Interior (Interior),” the organization states in its comment. “The loss of these records would significantly jeopardize Interior’s transparency and accountability to the American public.”

“It’s unacceptable that Interior is already turning their efforts to destroying documents when they can’t even respond to the public records requests they have coming in,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project, in a statement.

Western Values Project filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department in October to investigate whether Zinke has used his position for political or personal gain. The organization wants the release of documents related to the secretary’s conduct. “Whether it’s a sweetheart land deal or private chartered flights, it’s long past time to shine a light on Zinke’s public documents,” said Saeger. “ If Zinke has nothing to hide, his office would promptly address this complaint by fulfilling these requests.”

Indeed, if the conduct of Zinke and his department are above the proverbial board than fulfilling FOIA requests is no big deal.


Image credit: Gage Skidmore

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