WASHINGTON – The U.S. Interior Department appears to have intentionally delayed responses to oversight requests from Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
At a hearing before the panel Thursday, the Tucson Democrat said his committee had obtained emails showing that Interior employees had been instructed to withhold communications from him and that any documents he requested were to be reviewed first by political appointees.
Grijalva said the unresponsiveness appears to have been targeted at him personally.
“No other member of the House was singled out” the same way, Grijalva added.
The committee provided Arizona Mirror with a March 14 email from a staffer in Interior’s Office of the Executive Secretariat directing other Interior employees that correspondence being sent to the Senate or to Grijalva “NOT be sent until you have further direction.”
The names of the agency employees, including the sender, were redacted.
Another email dated March 21 said that anything going to the Senate or to Grijalva must first be reviewed by political appointees who lead the offices of policy analysis and congressional affairs.
Asked whether that policy was still in place, Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s top attorney who was confirmed by the Senate just this week, told Grijalva, he found the policy unacceptable.
“Any notion of a mandatory two-week delay for the chairman of our oversight committee is incorrect and I’d be shocked if it were still in place,” he said at a Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday.
He pledged to look into the matter. Interior’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether those delays are still taking place.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike expressed frustration Thursday over how the Interior Department has responded – or failed to respond – to their oversight requests.
“The Trump administration has declared open war on Congress’ constitutional authority to conduct oversight,” Grijalva said.
Of the committee’s more than 24 formal requests for documents or information, Grijalva said, they’ve received only three complete or nearly complete responses. For 14 of the requests – more than half – the committee has received no substantive response, he added.
In one case, Interior gave the committee a 12,000-page printout of a single Microsoft Excel table, Grijalva said, showing images of empty spreadsheet pages that were sent to the committee. In response to another request, Interior sent over 100 pages of unintelligible symbols, he said.
Grijalva isn’t alone in his frustration. Other lawmakers also showed redacted pages they’ve received from Interior in response to oversight requests, including a fully blacked out page.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., was unimpressed by the response he got from Interior after requesting information about the Trump administration’s decision to renew two mining leases near the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.
Of the nearly 11,000 pages of documents he received, Tonko said, “most of them were entirely irrelevant.” About one-third of the documents were duplicates, he said, and the other two-thirds included documents that were almost entirely redacted, publicly available, computer code or irrelevant papers about the long-term storage of nuclear waste.
Jorjani pledged to be more responsive and to better respond to the committee’s requests going forward.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said he joined his Democratic colleagues in being “highly offended” that Interior would “send 12,000 pages of nothing and then try to appear as though your department is being cooperative.”
Hice asked Jorjani: “Why would you do something like that?”
Jorjani said that, according to his understanding, responsive documents had also been included, and the department didn’t want to appear to be excluding information that could be viewed as relevant to congressional requests.
He said,“I commit to doing better and whether it’s the saving of trees or wasted time of the committee, I agree that is probably not the best practice and I commit to reducing it in the future.”
Hice agreed. “It’s probably not” the best practice, he said.