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Top Interior Lawyer Ducks Questions on Oversight Requests

The top lawyer for the Interior Department dodged questions from House Democrats on congressional oversight Thursday, just two days after he was narrowly confirmed by the Senate amid accusations he lied to Congress. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The top lawyer for the Interior Department dodged questions from House Democrats on congressional oversight Thursday, just two days after he was narrowly confirmed by the Senate amid accusations he lied to Congress.

In the lead-up to his confirmation by a 51-43 vote, Democrats said Daniel Jorjani was not forthcoming about his role in crafting a new Freedom of Information Act policy that allows political appointees to review records requests and block documents from public release.

While he is now the principal deputy solicitor, Jorjani is still under investigation by the department’s inspector general. In his testimony Thursday before the House Natural Resources Committee, he repeatedly promised to look into Interior’s responses to congressional oversight requests that both Democrats and Republicans protested are too slow.

The inquiries touch on a range of issues from plans to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Colorado, to oil and gas lease programs and national monument designations.

Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the Trump administration has declared “open war” on congressional oversight.

“They’re padding the numbers,” Grijalva said, exhibiting a 12,000 page printout of blank Excel tables the Interior submitted to the committee.

“I commit to doing better and whether it’s the saving of trees or the wasted time of the committee, I agree that is probably not the best practice,” Jorjani said.

The political appointee testified that the Interior Department — responsible for safeguarding America’s landscapes and natural resources — has resolved six of the 27 oversight requests from the committee since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in January.

But Grijalva offered a different breakdown, saying the Interior has resolved only three inquires from the committee and provided “no substantive response” to over half its requests.

Still, Republicans congratulated Jorjani on his Tuesday confirmation and said the Interior was performing better under President Donald Trump than it had under the Obama administration.

“You have performed extremely well, producing a whole lot more information in a shorter period of time than what was good in those good ole days,” said Ranking Member Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

Reading from prepared remarks, Jorjani said during the first nine months of 2011, when Republicans controlled the House, the Interior received 21 oversight requests and provided 38 letters and productions of documents and information.

“The Department’s commitment to accommodating Congress’s legitimate oversight functions and, at the same time, protecting important Executive Branch functions, is robust, and we have dedicated significant taxpayer resources to complying with these requests,” Jorjani said.

Democrats on multiple occasions accused the Trump appointee of offering canned responses to their detailed questions during the hearing.

Jorjani testified that the Interior is responding to requests with an administrative process inherited from the previous administration.

But Republicans accused the Obama administration of having stonewalled congressional oversight, claiming it submitted only 5,000 documents to the House Natural Resources Committee.

“You want to do a whole lot better than the Obama administration ... because that was an abysmal record they set,” said Representative Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.

Responding to Republican members, Jorjani also testified the Interior was in no way trying to illegally withhold information from Congress.

But he struggled to explain to Democrats why responses sent to the committee this year included full redacted pages, pages sextupled and 100 pages with only symbols — including a Twitter logo blown up to fill an entire page.

"Regarding that specific document, I’m not sure,” Jorjani said. He committed to work on sending more responsive materials.

Closing the hearing that Grijalva described as an “airing of grievances” for both Democrats and Republicans, the chair said he is considering requiring the Interior to submit weekly reports to the committee with meticulous updates on the progress of department responses to oversight requests.

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