Secrets and Lies: Comment NOW against proposed FOIA Regs

Do you want to know a secret? FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, gives private citizens the right to get information from federal agencies. It exists to promote transparency, accountability, and prompt access to a wide range of information. But under proposed revised regulations, the Department of the Interior (DOI) would be able to decide for itself whether it felt like giving out information – even information on whether the government was involved in possible criminal behavior. You have until January 28 to comment opposing these proposed regulations and preserve our right to get crucial information … [January 17: note that due to the shutdown the link may not be working, please keep trying if you get an outage message].

For example, information about government officials who have misused their positions … such as Ryan Zinke, Trump’s recently departed Secretary of the Interior. The Department of the Interior, rather like the interior of the country itself, is grand in scope, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and half a dozen other major departments. Zinke resigned at the end of 2018, after an unprecedented 18 separate investigations were launched into his misconduct. Some of these investigations are still pending at the time of this writing; ominously, several were closed only because of lack of cooperation by the DOI or failure to keep records.

In an amazing coincidence, just days before Zinke’s resignation, the DOI proposed revised regulations giving it broad discretion to avoid providing answers to FOIA requests for information — particularly from journalists and public interest organizations. Under these proposed regulations, the Department would be able to:

  • decide which media organizations “serve the public interest” and are therefore entitled to information, and
  • limit the number of requests media and other organizations can make during a month.

Extensive case law under FOIA governs what records must be produced. These proposed regulations are unnecessary, contrary to the statute and that case law, and inconsistent with the clear intent of Congress. They impede accountability and make further misconduct more likely.

The comment period for these proposed regulations ends January 28. Go to https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOI_FRDOC_0001-0094 and click the “comment now” button at the upper right to leave an objection. Be sure to mention that you are commenting on Docket No. DOI-2018-0017.

You can use these points as a guide, but please use your own language; comments that are too similar may be grouped together and not considered individually.

  • The proposed changes to the Department of the Interior’s handling of FOIA requests are contrary to goals of the FOIA statute: transparency, accountability, and prompt access to information.
  • The proposed changes are contrary to the FOIA statute, 5 U.S.C. section 522, which allows “any person” to seek information. The proposed regulations allow Interior to deny access to a media organization or other organization that has recently asked for other information. Under this change, Interior could withhold information from media outlets it didn’t like, or anyone who asked numerous or embarrassing questions – the exact situation FOIA was intended to provide against.
  • The purported reason for the changes – an increase in FOIA requests – is the result of the conduct of the DOI itself: As reported by Outside Magazine (January 17, 2019) and Nada Culver, senior counsel with the Wilderness Society, FOIA requests at Interior are up because Interior stopped sharing information voluntarily that was routinely provided by prior administrations.
  • Other changes include stretching time “limits” into “frames,” making it easier to deny requests, and giving Interior discretion to decide whether media organizations are operating primarily “in a commercial interest.” These go directly against the intent of FOIA – to allow access to information and to prevent the government from prohibiting access.
  • Submitting these proposed regulations during a holiday week, in the midst of a government shutdown, just days before Director Ryan Zinke resigned while the subject of numerous investigations, is an outrageous effort by the government to keep the public from exercising their democratic rights.

Dean Gloster is a former clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court who now writes novels. His debut YA, DESSERT FIRST, is out now.

 

The shutdown is our national emergency

It’s obvious to anyone who thinks before talking (or tweeting) that the government shutdown harms everyone, not just Democrats. But when pants are on fire, we need more than what’s obvious – we all need to be able to stand up and tell the truth. No, the people who long for this administration to fulfill prophecies of the end of the world won’t care, but there are millions of people who do. And so we offer this short collection of info about how the government shutdown is harming real people and the real world:

Who’s not getting paid?

  • When people think of federal employees, they may think of elected officials or high-paid white collar jobs. But federal workers as a whole make just slightly over the national average and include workers like food preparers, who make under $12/hour. These aren’t people who can afford to go without their paychecks.
  • From a National Park Service employee: “Our HR folks managed to get our Dec. 31 payroll in but who knows what’s next. It’s the lower graded employees who REALLY suffer. Some are seeking out temp jobs to fill the gap!”
  • A federal court employee reports that court employees have not been guaranteed that they’ll get paid for work beyond January 11, although they will be required to report to work as usual with or without pay. “I know several coworkers off the top of my head that can’t live without a paycheck. What are they supposed to do? I read today that some federal employees are applying for unemployment and can receive up to $450 a week but will have to return the funds once they get paid from the government. This shutdown has us scared and sick, not knowing the impact it will have on us personally and as a nation.”
  • Another federal worker: “I was planning to retire later this year but I can’t even get the paperwork going on that during the shutdown.”
  • The shutdown affects people who aren’t federal workers, too. The office that handles food stamps is staffed by federal workers, and although food stamps are essential to the people who get them, these workers aren’t considered “essential” – meaning that they aren’t coming to work and people aren’t getting the aid they need in order to eat.
  • Money and aid get held up in all kinds of ways: first-year students at a PA medical school received an e-mail saying they would get their student loan money for the upcoming term, but the funds were already late by the time the email arrived. For many people, getting money late can have serious repercussions.
  • See more personal stories here.

Health and Safety

The Environment

  • National Parks are basically semi-closed. The bathrooms are completely closed. People are driving off-road, doing what bears do in the woods, and more.
  • A park service employee reports “loss of control over schedules. … we are working on a tight timeline that is tied to many other events in the park with locked in dates. And of course, with skeleton staffs, there are serious negative impacts to delicate natural and cultural (not to mention HUMAN) resources that are being put at unnecessary risk.”
  • Wildfire prevention on federal lands – yes, the kind of thing needed to avoid huge loss of property and resources and life, especially in states like California and Nevada which are at least half federal land – has come to a halt. Of course, this is a health and safety issue as well.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is running on skeleton staffing and little to no funding as a result of the shutdown. (Let’s not even go into how that fits into this administration’s view of that agency …)

What you can do:

Call Our Senators: The House of Representatives has a bill to reopen the government without money for the Wall; we want the Senate to refuse to advance any legislation except that bill. And just before Trump gave his speech and Stormy Daniels folded her laundry on January 8, our Senators did just that. Please call Sen. Feinstein at 202-224-3841, and Sen. Harris at 202-224-3553 to say thanks, and tell them:

My name is ____, my zip code is ___, and I’m a member of Indivisible East Bay. I want to thank Senator Feinstein/Harris for voting against advancing legislation that wouldn’t have reopened the government without funding for the Wall. Please keep it up: vote NO on everything that isn’t the House bill to reopen the government without money for the Wall.

Help those in need: In times of trouble, people always need food. Donate or volunteer at these worthy organizations:

Photograph “Open Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” by Alan Levine