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Ethics Office Investigates Whether Interior Dept. Officials Violated Transparency Laws

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department’s internal ethics watchdog has opened an investigation into whether top Trump appointees at the agency have violated federal open-record laws by withholding or delaying the release of public documents, emails and policy memos.

The investigation by the Interior Department’s Inspector General comes the same day as the separate introduction of a bipartisan Senate bill aimed at overhauling new public-records policies at the Environmental Protection Agency. Senators of both parties say the E.P.A.’s practices of reviewing and responding to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act have raised “serious concerns” about its transparency.

Several public watchdog groups and lawmakers contend that the two agencies — which together oversee aspects of the nation’s environmental policies, including clean-air and clean-water rules as well as conservation of public lands — have implemented new policies that have improperly limited the public’s ability to gain access to public records revealing how those policies are made.

The new policies, which critics say are designed to allow President Trump’s appointees to limit the release of information about their activities, were implemented in the wake of reports of questionable conduct by the former heads of both agencies.

Mr. Trump’s first appointee to head the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, and his first appointee to head the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, resigned last year after thousands of pages of documents released under Freedom of Information Act requests raised questions about matters such Mr. Pruitt’s alleged spending abuses, first-class travel and relationships with lobbyists, and Mr. Zinke’s efforts to secure taxpayer-funded perks for his wife.

Both men have said that the criticism of their actions was politically and personally motivated, and that they did nothing wrong.

Last year, the Interior Department implemented a new “Awareness Policy” regarding requests for information and public records under the Freedom of Information Act. The new policy requires career staff reviewing such requests to notify politically appointed officials if their names or email addresses appear in documents that have been designated to be released.

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That policy, watchdog groups say, has allowed top officials appointed by President Trump to then withhold or delay the release of such information. “The upshot is that, in practice, the policy has morphed from a procedure that provides awareness to political appointees to one that allows political appointees to unlawfully withhold and delay documents,” said Travis Annatoyn, senior counsel at Democracy Forward, a watchdog group that had requested the Interior Department’s investigation.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, Molly Block, declined to comment and referred to the Interior Department’s website, which includes a document describing the policy. The page says the policy is intended to streamline the process of the agency’s response to increased Freedom of Information Act requests.

Separately, lawmakers and watchdog groups have complained about a similar new E.P.A. rule, completed in June, to revise the process by which that agency responds to Freedom of Information Act requests. Under the new E.P.A. procedure, political appointees at the agency are authorized to “issue final determinations whether to release or withhold” document requests.

In a letter to the E.P.A. administrator, Andrew Wheeler, four senators on the Judiciary committee — Republicans Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, and Democrats Patrick Leahey of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California — wrote that the proposed changes “appear to run contrary to the letter and the spirit of FOIA, thus undermining the American people’s right to access information from the E.P.A.”

An E.P.A. spokesman, Michael Abboud, wrote in an email, “After many years of delay, E.P.A.’s FOIA regulations are now in line with the Congressionally mandated changes to the statute and E.P.A. has no plans to withdraw the finalized rule.” He added: “This rule will enhance transparency and efficiency of responses to FOIA requests. Allegations made that the rule is changing the political appointees role in FOIA are false and irresponsible.”

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