After attracting more scandals in 18 months than his four predecessors managed in 16 years, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quietly shut the door to further public scrutiny of his office over the Thanksgiving break.
The secretary gave control of incoming Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to former Koch Industries adviser and longtime Zinke consigliere Dan Jorjani in an order dated November 20 but first uncovered Monday afternoon by the Center for Biological Diversity.
Zinke’s move on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving is best understood as a reshuffling of his resources, from attack to defense. Jorjani has worked for the agency since at least May 2017, serving as the chief lawyer putting Zinke and Trump’s agenda into black-letter policy action. He worked with energy industry interests to pen the rollbacks of Obama-era regulatory decisions protecting migratory birds and rejecting a mining proposal at the edge of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, according to reporting by Pacific Standard’s Jimmy Tobias.
As Zinke’s management of the department drew scandalous scrutiny — like so many other Trump cabinet secretaries, Zinke appears to play fast and loose with ethics rules governing travel costs — Jorjani wrote to a colleague that Interior staffers’ primary responsibility is to protect Zinke from negative press. He will now be the central gatekeeper of the agency’s documents when journalists, watchdogs, and other citizens seek insight into the conduct of their government.
The appointment follows Zinke’s much-criticized attempt to replace the department’s Inspector General with the same Trump administration employee who previously helped Secretary Ben Carson spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on new decor for his Housing and Urban Development office. Zinke appears to have taken just one lesson from that experience: When replacing professional oversight and transparency officials with political allies, it’s better to do it over a holiday week.
Though courts often frown on bad-faith invocations of executive privilege and other exceptions to the FOIA law from government officials, an initial rejection from a FOIA officer typically buys many months of delay even if a judge later orders public servants to hand over documents. The potential for such abuse of FOIA decision-making authority by political hands is part of the reason the work is typically done by career civil servants. Zinke’s sly Thanksgiving maneuver boots a career Interior employee out of the FOIA driver’s seat, replaced by a person whose stated loyalty is to Zinke first and the department’s mandates on behalf of the public second. Some environmental groups worry that the public interest might not even be second on Jorjani’s mental list, given his years of legal service to the arch-conservative Koch brothers.
Jorjani is likely to be busy. As of late August, there were 15 separate active investigations into Zinke’s conduct atop the agency in his first 541 days in office, according to Bloomberg’s tally of Trump administration scandals and potential scandals. The same tracker records 11 official investigations of the past four heads of Interior combined, over roughly 16 years of service.
Zinke has wielded the agency as a weapon on behalf of pollution-heavy industries, despite his carefully curated public image as an outdoorsman who cherishes wilderness spaces. He’s rescinded federal land protections from millions of acres of the west, thrown National Parks Service security staff into his boss’s immigration enforcement kabuki, and ignored and stifled input from the indigenous communities who live closest to the lands he oversees.
To be fair to Jorjani’s boss, though, Zinke has also put a Big Buck Hunter game in the employee cafeteria at Interior headquarters.