The Interior Department is faced with a new lawsuit over its refusal to comply with a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) probing potential government ethics violations surrounding Secretary Deb Haaland’s August wedding.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the government-transparency group Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT), seeks to compel records requested by FOIA days after the event to examine whether improper gifts or influence peddling took place over the ceremony. According to the complaint, the Department of the Interior dismissed the group’s inquiries four times when following up on the request now submitted more than 220 days ago.
“Considering the potential for those who might be inclined to use Secretary Haaland’s wedding for improper purposes, the Department should have been on heightened alert to any situation that may have presented possible ethics quandaries,” said Michael Chamberlain, the director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Their responses to these FOIA requests hardly demonstrate any such commitment.”
Haaland’s New Mexico wedding became the target of controversy last summer when images surfaced from the celebration with prominent politicians such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren forgoing mask rules imposed by the state’s Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“The re-implemented mask requirement applies to all individuals aged 2 and older in all indoor public settings — except when eating or drinking,” Grisham’s office outlined in an Aug. 17 press release with the expiration date set for Sept. 15. Haaland’s wedding took place on Aug. 28.
The complaint filed by Protect the Public’s Trust centers on the circumstances of the event and whether the secretary received gifts worth more than what is permissible pursuant to federal guidelines.
“While we congratulate Secretary Haaland and wish her a long and happy marriage,” reads the PPT lawsuit, “as a cabinet official, participation in a large event that customarily includes gifts and may have involved the use of official resources is more than a purely private affair.”
According to the Interior Department’s Departmental Ethics Office (DOE), federal employees may only accept unsolicited gifts of more than $20 per person per occasion with some exceptions for items “clearly” based on personal relationships.
The Department of the Interior has not released a guest list as requested by FOIA, with no indication a disclosure is in the pipeline, according to Protect the Public’s Trust.
“Given these facts,” plaintiffs wrote, “it appears that absent litigation the Department has not and does not intend to meet its statutory obligations to provide the requested records.”
The Department of the Interior did not respond to The Federalist’s request for comment.