Probe: Interior held back Bernhardt records sought by court

FILE - In this March 10, 2020, file photo Interior Secretary David Bernhardt testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the FY'21 budget in Washington. The Interior Department withheld public documents related to Bernhardt ahead of his Senate confirmation, an agency watchdog group concluded in a report made public Tuesday, Aug. 11. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Susan Walsh, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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.

A counselor to the secretary, Hubbel Relat, had directed the staffers in Interior’s Office of the Solicitor legal office and FOIA office to withhold documents related to Bernhardt, the report says. Relat said the records were “sensitive information” due to Bernhardt's pending confirmation, investigators say.

An unidentified legal adviser is quoted as telling the agency's internal investigators that “Relat’s direction to withhold Bernhardt-related documents in the FOIA litigation was because Bernhardt was awaiting his confirmation hearing. The attorney also remembered that this direction from Relat was to remain in place until after Bernhardt’s confirmation,” the report says.

Rachel Spector, director of the agency office charged with responding to open-records requests, told investigators that she had directed her staffers and the agency's legal officers it was a “legitimate activity to scrutinize documents before release to ‘understand what might hit the press or (what) Congress might ask David (Bernhardt) about ... during the pendency of his nomination.”’

In an email statement Tuesday, Interior press secretary Ben Goldey said, “The report demonstrates that the Department’s actions were consistent with its legal, ethics, and FOIA obligations, including the applicable court order.”

The Department of Justice had agreed that the Interior Department was free to decide how it chose to process and release documents under the federal open-records request, Goldey said.

The Interior Department subsequently released most of the documents it had withheld related to Bernhardt, seven months later, the report says.