A government watchdog group is suing the Interior Department over access to Secretary Deb Haaland’s schedule, which has been kept under seal through nearly her entire seven-month tenure.
The transparency non-profit Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed the lawsuit after a series of records requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) failed to generate documents months after solicitation.
“Compliance with public information laws isn’t supposed to happen merely at convenience of federal agencies or their press shops. It’s a legal obligation,” said the group’s director, Michael Chamberlain. “The American public deserves much better than what Secretary Haaland’s Department of Interior is delivering.”
Chamberlain’s group sought Haaland’s schedule, meeting requests, and travel records in May, much of which had been routinely made public under the prior two administrations. According to the complaint filed Wednesday, officials at the Interior Department bypassed the 20-day statutory deadline to give Protect the Public’s Trust a decision on whether the agency would meet the inquiry.
“Despite the passage of nearly five months’ time and various communications between Plaintiff and Defendant, the Department has failed to provide a ‘determination’ regarding the request as required,” the complaint reads.
While a minimal calendar was made available of the secretary’s first two weeks in office, Haaland’s schedule has remained largely a mystery ever since except for public appearances reported in the press.
When Haaland was on the House Natural Resources Committee during her one term in Congress before she ascended to the nation’s preeminent land agency, her chairman demanded more details into then-Acting Secretary David Bernhardt’s calendar entries. At the time, Democrat Chairman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona demanded additional information due to concerns of potential conflicts of interest.
Bernhardt however, a former energy lobbyist who kept a list of prior clients to avoid ethics violations, said he did not keep a personal calendar with the detailed information Grijalva demanded. The calendar that did exist was still open to the public. Haaland’s is absent.
During a July webinar, Interior Communications Director Melissa Schwartz was pressed on the calendar’s absence.
“The Department’s website has a secretarial calendar page in the FOIA section,” said the moderator. “This lists the meetings and activities of Interior secretaries past, all the way back to Jewell. Nothing about Secretary Haaland’s meetings or her travels or anything. Why is that?”
Schwartz said the department was aiming to publish a calendar in August.
“I myself promised reporters that we would have the calendar up,” she said. “I have blown through my own deadline that I committed to because it’s just taking a little bit more time in the beautiful bureaucracy we work in than I expected… We’re really trying to use August, perhaps slightly quieter time to get all of this up.”
Friday’s beginning of October marks another deadline missed.
The agency also missed a deadline to release its long-anticipated interim report on the federal oil and gas program after it suspended industry leases on federal lands. The ban has since been overturned by a federal judge.
While Haaland pledged repeatedly to publish the report by “early summer,” the first day of autumn arrived Wednesday of last week with no report.