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Proposed Rule Aims To Curb Public Records Requests As Demand For Documents Increases

Image of redacted FOIA documents.
Renee Bright / KUER
Public records requests have increased 30 percent in the past two years.

A new rule proposed last week by the U.S. Interior Department could make it harder for news outlets and non-profit organizations to get public information on a range of federal issues.

Once adopted, the regulations would allow the agency to put a cap on the number of Freedom of Information Act requests it processes every month. The proposed rule, which was posted on Dec. 28 in the Federal Register, would also make it tougher for those requests to be filled out quickly for breaking news stories.

“This appears to be a regulation to figure out some sort of way they can shirk their statutory responsibilities,” Jeff Ruch, executive director for the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said.

The Interior Department manages one-fifth of all lands in the United States, as well as the wealth of oil, gas and minerals that lay beneath it. Under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the agency shrunk national monument protections and opened up millions of acres to more energy development. But he resigned late last month amidst ethical investigations which were spurred, in part, by public records requests.

Ruch said he is suspicious of the Department’s motives behind the rule change — if it really wanted to reduce its workload, it could start by making documents and memorandums more easily available to the public.

In its proposed rule, the Interior Department argued the new regulations would help the agency tackle a growing number of Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists and advocacy organizations.

Such requests have increased by 30 percent since President Trump took office, according to the agency.

The rule was proposed by the Interior Department’s top lawyer, Daniel Jorjani, who recently and controversially took charge of handling public records requests there.

The 30-day public comment period on the FOIA proposal ends Jan. 28.

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.

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