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Interior Department Wants Transparency, FOIA Process Impedes That Goal
Interior Department officials launched an intriguing web portal the other day, one touted as promoting transparency in government operations. Well, one place Interior officials could create a whole lot of transparency is by adding more staff to handle Freedom of Information Act requests, which currently move at a glacial pace.
"The Department of the Interior is committed to providing the American public with timely, accurate information," Interior's FOIA site states, only to quickly add that, "The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to access any Department of the Interior records unless the information in those records is protected by one or more of the nine exemptions (reasons an agency may withhold records from a requester) and there is a sound legal basis to withhold them." (emphasis added)
This new openness site caught the Traveler's attention in part because of a FOIA odyssey it has been on since last fall. In early November the Traveler submitted a FOIA request to obtain a report from the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. The report was the result of an investigation into how the National Park Service's Intermountain Regional Office handled a probe into charges that a man hired as the "Indian Trader" to run the retail operation at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site had misappropriated funds from the operation.
The OIG became involved in the matter back in November 2006. And while it completed a report, and forwarded it to then-Park Service Director Mary Bomar in January 2008, that document has yet to be released publicly.
The Traveler's FOIA request was answered in mid-December by the OIG's FOIA officer, Sandra Evans, who wrote back to say the request had been categorized as "complex," a designation that meant it would take the office "more than 20 workdays" to process.
In early January the Traveler contacted Ms. Evans to get an update. While she quickly recognized the request in question, she said a number of issues had arisen that were complicating her handling of it. For one, unspecified "administrative things" delayed the report's actually arrival at the OIG until late in 2009, she said. Then, a lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility seeking the same information gave that group's request priority. Second in line was a request from the attorney for Billy Malone, the Indian trader at Hubbell Trading Post.
Another factor was that Ms. Evans had come across "an additional 75 documents that had been previously given to me (in connection with the matter), so I'm in the process of trying to get those reviewed," she said. Since some of the documents were from the Park Service, that agency needed to be consulted as to what information could be released, she added. Still, Ms. Evans was optimistic that she could provide the Traveler with a redacted version of the OIG's report within a week, and that additional information would be forthcoming once it had been approved for release.
About two weeks later, with no documents in hand, the Traveler again contacted Ms. Evans, and was told that PEER's lawsuit had forced her to put other FOIA requests on hold at least until February 19 while she worked to meet its document requests.
PEER officials, fortunately, last week were willing to share with the Travelerthe few documents that they had received to date from the OIG.
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, wasn't sure why the OIG had such troubles answering FOIA requests.
“It’s not atypical. What is surprising is that of the non-military agencies that we deal with ... the worst is the Interior IG, which is supposed to be making sure everyone else is obeying the rules, and they don’t apply the rules to them," said Mr. Ruch. "There was a period in the '90s when they didn’t have anybody responding to the FOIAs. They just put them in a big pile. So at least they have someone responding."
Ironically, he said, "the IG doesn’t hesitate to fault other agencies for not complying with FOIA or other administrative requirements.”
The FOIA process can appear at times to be one of obfuscation, of evasiveness. Bruce Schundler, who along with his wife has worked at a number of national parks, first as seasonal rangers, more recently as volunteers, has been stymied in his efforts to look into spending habits at Mesa Verde National Park. So long and frustrating has his odyssey become that he's built a website to chronicle it.
Mr. Schundler is no newbie when it comes to FOIA, for as a businessman in New Jersey he had "worked under the guidelines of the Sunshine Law and the Freedom of Information Act." Too, he also was a town councilman who had to deal with government openness from that side of the desk. And yet, despite this experience, he has been subjected to a correspondence-heavy, administrative maze since requesting information on Mesa Verde's fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2008 budgets, the travels of its superintendent, and the number of unfilled vacancies at the park. Mesa Verde officials initially put off his first requests for the information, saying the staff was too busy to comply immediately.
"What is ironical," Mr. Schundler wrote in response, "is that the information I requested in my first letter could have been generated on some computers within five to ten minutes. They are basic and standard reports; they are easily generated..."
What seemed to be so easy, though, has dragged on through various offices of the Park Service's Intermountain Region, to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and, at last check, involved Mr. Schundler sending a letter earlier this month to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar outlining his dilemma and seeking satisfaction. Here's part of that letter:
Because I have never heard back from your FOIA Appeals Officer, this letter is my last and final administrative appeal relating to what started out as a very simple FOIA request in July.
And I am writing because my experiences to date call into question the commitment of the Department of Interior and the National Park Service to ushering in a new era of openness and transparency as directed by the President. In fact, my experiences call into question whether the President’s memorandum of January 21, 2009, your own directive of July 2, 2009, and the Attorney General’s memorandum of March 19, 2009 are being ignored.
Simply stated, my recent experience seem to indicates that the Department of Interior’s and National Park Service’s commitment to openness and transparency seems to be a travesty and is close to non-existent; managers, superintendents, and FOIA officers are openly and regularly ignoring the FOIA law, its guidelines and related memorandums with impunity; and the FOIA process as it was designed to work seems to be broken and ineffective---and no one seems to care.
That’s why I’m writing you.
Instead of responding to a simple request concerning previous budgets, at Mesa Verde NP I was stonewalled and intimidated and eventually had to file a formal FOIA request. Instead of following 43 CFR Part 2 carefully and completely, portions of it were used by the regional FOIA Officer to deny, delay, and rebuff and this stalled the process for several more months. In the end, instead of being given an honest two hours worth of information, I was given a few minutes worth of work and given information which continues to be questionable in its accuracy. And finally, instead of getting any kind of response from your DOI’s Appeal Officers, after almost three months, I have neither heard nor received anything.