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Zinke Taps Former Koch Foundation Advisor To Review Public Records Requests For Interior Department

Photo of Ryan Zinke.
Tami Heilemann, U.S. Department of the Interior
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has appointed a top lawyer and former conservative strategist to oversee and review public records requests. Pictured here: Ryan Zinke signing a secretarial order in 2017.

Public record requests have played a major role in spurring multiple ethics investigations into U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

But last month, Zinkeput a former Koch Foundation advisor in charge of reviewing records requests directed at his department. The move has raised eyebrows for some critics who say the department already has a transparency problem.

“I’ve never seen something so brazen before,” said Michael Morisy, a former Boston Globe editor and co-founder of MuckRock, a public records request sharing platform.

Public records requests, which are granted under the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, allow the public to view government emails, contracts and memorandums.

Under normal circumstances, career staffers review these requests and redact information that is deemed sensitive or private, or withhold records. But in November, Zinke signed an order granting his current acting deputy solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, those responsibilities.

“Instead of having someone who is going to be there from administration to administration, you have somebody who owes favors to that administration deciding, ‘Is this going to embarrass the administration?’” Morisy said. “That has a really corrosive effect on the public’s right to know.”

In his order, Zinke writes that the Interior Department has been inundated with records requests and Jorjani’s appointment is an attempt to streamline the reviewing process.

According to the order, such requests to the Office of the Secretary increased 210 percent last year.

Jorjani will replace former Interior FOIA officer Sylvia Burns. She held the position from 2006 until she left the Interior Department this September to work for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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