Government transparency dims under Biden, outside watchdog reports

The Department of Energy has withheld records sought under a FOIA request from November, while the Department of the Interior has taken down its litigation transparency website.

Published: June 23, 2022 7:35pm

Updated: June 25, 2022 11:18pm

On President Joe Biden's first day in office, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki promised that "his objective and his commitment is to bring transparency and truth back to government" — but federal government watchdogs have found the administration significantly lacking in that commitment.

Director of Protect the Public's Trust Michael Chamberlain told the John Solomon Reports podcast on Wednesday that the Department of Energy has been slow to provide records in response to his organization's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Last year, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and a slew of other cabinet secretaries, agency directors and senior White House officials attended the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

PPT sought information from the relevant departments and agencies about "how much funding and how many resources were devoted to send staff overseas," Chamberlain said, in addition to asking "to see the telework agreements of the people who had gone overseas — were they teleworking at home, but then flew to Scotland and attending an in-person conference?"

Despite filing FOIA requests with the Energy Department back in November, PPT has yet to receive any records from DOE, while other departments have responded with records.

Despite Energy Department assurances that PPT would receive some documents by the end of April, PPT never did, and the department hasn't responded to further correspondence. As a result, PPT has filed a FOIA lawsuit to obtain the requested information.

This lack of response to a FOIA request runs directly counter to a March memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland instructing department and agency heads to "work constructively" with "the FOIA requester community to improve processing capacities, reduce backlogs, and make government more transparent, responsive, and accountable."

"Transparency in government operations is a priority of this Administration and this Department," Garland emphasized in the memo to department and agency heads.

Chamberlain also explained how the Department of the Interior is becoming less transparent under the Biden administration. 

During Donald Trump's presidency, Interior created a litigation transparency website to show the public details of settlements made regarding lawsuits the department was involved in. Under Biden, however, the department has taken down that website and reversed Trump administration rules limiting sue-and-settle lawsuits.

These lawsuits are used as "an end-run around the legislative and regulatory process," Chamberlain said, when the DOI under a new administration wants to change a land determination made by a prior administration.

With the lawsuits, an outside, "allied group can sue the department," and the department will then reach a settlement through "negotiations behind closed doors" to get what both the department and the group wanted from the beginning, he explained.

Through the settlement, the department will "pay these group's attorneys' fees, and they'll pay them sums of money," he continued. "So the group that sues to get done what the department had wanted to do, they not only get what they want as well, but they also get paid to do that."

This type of arrangment "can open up a whole area for collusion," Chamberlain warned, "between groups that are interested in land use — whether they're environmental groups or free market-type groups — and they can collude with an allied administration and make these things happen behind closed doors, where the taxpayers don't have a seat at the table."

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