Congress

Wyden aims to stunt lead Interior attorney confirmation, cites records policy

Wyden cites newly-released documents the senator said show Jorjani deceived the committee during his confirmation

Sen. Ron Wyden said he will block any unanimous consent motion to confirm Daniel Jorjani to be the lead attorney at the Interior Department, which would force a roll call vote on the nomination. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Ron Wyden said he will block any unanimous consent motion to confirm President Donald Trump’s choice for lead attorney at the Interior Department, asserting the nominee lied about his role implementing a policy that has allowed political appointees to screen public records requests.

The hold announced Wednesday by Wyden, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would force the Senate to take a roll call vote on the nomination of Daniel Jorjani to be the department’s solicitor, a vote that could be passed by the nominee’s Republican supporters with a simple majority.

[Interior held back FOIA’d documents after political screenings]

The Oregon Democrat also sent letters to the Justice Department and Interior’s inspector general requesting investigations into whether Jorjani intentionally lied to the committee, citing newly-released documents the senator said show he deceived the committee during his confirmation hearing and in written statements submitted afterward about the policy and his role in the screening of public records requests.

“Attempts by political appointees at the Interior Department to delay, stonewall, and otherwise inhibit public and Congressional oversight are totally unacceptable,” Wyden said in the news release. “I cannot allow Mr. Jorjani’s nomination to proceed.”

[Interior Department policy let political appointees review FOIA requests]

Wyden’s concerns stem from the department’s awareness review policy, which has for at least a year allowed political appointees to screen documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, including records sought in lawsuits. Interior Department documents released this month by environmental group Earthjustice showed that in some cases FOIA requests delayed and, in others, records were withheld by the department during the reviews.

The Interior inspector general last week opened an audit of the policy, led by the same division within the office that in 2015 reported that while political interference occurred in “rare” events, FOIA requests “remained free from political influence.”

Prior to Wyden’s announcement, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources told CQ Roll Call they were “hopeful the Senate will vote on his nomination in early September.”

Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said in an email that, given the department’s lack of a Senate-confirmed solicitor, she is “confident” the Senate will “prioritize the confirmation of this highly qualified individual who has been leading transparency efforts at the Department” after the August recess.

At Jorjani’s May 2 confirmation hearing, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, pressed Jorjani on the issue of political involvement in FOIA requests. The attorney told lawmakers, “I myself don’t review FOIAs or make determinations.”

After the hearing, Wyden gave Jorjani an opportunity to clarify his statement. In written questions he stated his office obtained records showing Jorjani had been “given the opportunity to review FOIA records prior to release under the ‘awareness review’ process” and “given this information” gave him an opportunity to “clarify” his “testimony.”

Jorjani tweaked the wording of his claim. “As a policy matter, I typically did not review records prior to their release under the FOIA,” he stated.

Wyden also asked if there was a separate “heightened awareness” practice allowing specific political appointees to review FOIA requests. Jorjani denied such a policy existed. In his letter to the Justice Department, the senator, citing records released by Earthjustice, stated that an “unwritten supplemental” review of public records requests by political officials existed.

“I believe Mr. Jorjani’s failure to acknowledge the informal supplemental review process and his outright denial of any ‘heightened awareness’ process reflects an effort to mislead the Committee about the nature and scope of political-level interference in FOIA processing and decisions at the Department,” the letter stated.  

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