Horse News

The BLM fails to provide public records

The agency’s main Freedom of Information Act office appears incompetent or overworked.

SOURCE:  HIGH COUNTRY NEWS

by Ray Ring, a Senior Editor for High Country News

When High Country News began using the Freedom of Information Act to gather official reports of threats against federal employees in the West, we didn’t expect that the main obstacle would arise in one federal agency’s headquarters.

Our intention was positive: By examining and summarizing the incidents, we hoped to ease tensions and encourage more respect for the federal employees as they go about their duties in the field.

So we were surprised by the poor performance of the Bureau of Land Management’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office in Washington, D.C. Its response to our request for public records can only be described as dysfunctional.

We began our investigation in January by filing FOIA requests with dozens of BLM field offices around the West, because the employees on the front lines bear the brunt of the threats and harassment. Then in February, the BLM’s chief FOIA officer, Ryan Witt, urged us to “consolidate” our far-flung FOIA requests into a single request handled by Witt’s office in D.C. Witt promised that running it all through his office would be would be more efficient, but as it has worked out, it’s been the opposite.

A comparison illustrates the problem: We filed similar FOIA requests with U.S. Forest Service offices around the West, and by the end of June, that agency had provided more than 2,300 pages of records of threats targeting its employees. At that point, the BLM’s FOIA office in D.C. had provided only 123 pages of records of incidents targeting BLM employees.

For two months after that, Witt and the FOIA officer to whom he delegated our request, Ore Fashola, stopped responding to us. Finally a lawyer in Witt’s office, Mike Sarich, helped spring loose several hundred additional pages in September. At that point, Fashola promised to send a “final” release of the main BLM records by mid-September — but since then, we’ve received nothing more from that set of records.

We still don’t even have BLM’s account of the worst incident since 2010 — a shooter’s attempted murder of two BLM rangers in Arizona, the opening scene in our introductory essay. We learned of that shooting through Forest Service records, because Forest Service employees helped search for the shooter who targeted the BLM rangers.

On Oct. 14, Witt phoned to explain why his office hasn’t yet provided the BLM’s account of the Arizona shooting. He said he’d discovered that his agency has a separate set of records covering incidents in which BLM law-enforcement rangers use their guns. That set of records is bound to have the most serious BLM incidents related to our FOIA request, yet Witt’s office overlooked them until we pressed for answers. Witt has now promised that we’ll get that set of records within a month, and it will include four or five incidents in which rangers drew their weapons. Forgive us if we’re skeptical about the timeline.

Whether the problem stems from overworked BLM FOIA officers in Witt’s office, incompetence, political manipulation, or a paranoiac secrecy in the BLM’s law-enforcement leadership, we encourage the head of the BLM, Neil Kornze, and his boss, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, to fix the problems in the BLM’s FOIA office.

 

8 replies »

  1. Public Citizen
    http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=2307

    Public Citizen was involved in three successful court cases relating to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T and Milner v. Department of the Navy in the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as Taylor v. Babbitt in Washington, D.C., district court. The rulings represented a victory not only for Public Citizen, but also for the public, thanks to the courts’ emphasis on accountability.

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  2. I know from personal experience that receiving FOIA request data is a long and frustrating problem. I have one “active” FOIA that is over two years old. The writer hit the nail on the head when he stated, … the problem stems from incompetence, political manipulation and/or paranoiac secrecy in the BLM…

    And I repeat what Louie posted the other day:
    GOVERNMENT CODE, TITLE 5. OPEN GOVERNMENT, ETHICS, SUBTITLE A. OPEN GOVERNMENT CHAPTER 552. PUBLIC INFORMATION, SUBCHAPTER A. GENERAL PROVISIONS, Sec. 552.001. POLICY; CONSTRUCTION. (a) Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.
    (b) This chapter shall be liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information.

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    • Part of problem with this administration is their attempt to act as if Congress doesn’t exist. The House has had very little cooperation from the administration on the IRS, Benghazi, Fast and Furious scandals. Some of these people need to handled in criminal court. They have violated some of our most basic freedoms and innocent people have died. An employee at the State Department stumbled in on people sorting through documents that might incriminate the Secretary on Benghazi. I saw this just to emphasize that when the administration has so little respect for the people we send Congress to represent us, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

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  3. This issue of BLM providing public records is nothing new for wild horse advocates and organizations. It’s ludicrous that American taxpayers that fund the BLM have to resort to legal action to obtain the public records we are paying for every year. And it’s ironic that High Country News wanted the information for a positive purpose to benefit the agency and it’s field employees. The BLM on paper aka their policy action plans committed to transparency. Yet, public records are still not provided? I’m glad to see HCN bringing media pressure on the BLM and DOI leadership to fix the problem. Although, I wonder how much and what information is available when records on the whereabouts of our wild horses removed from public lands are not produced by either of the responsible DOI federal agencies, BLM and USFWS.

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  4. I don’t know who has targeted federal employees or why, but my trust and confidence in BLM and USFS employees is at an extremely low ebb. Mostly what I hear about are cruel, detached employees who execute the policies of cruel, deranged “leadership.” We’ve all heard the excuses of “just following orders” and “they’re wild animals; they don’t need shelter” and crap like that. I certainly don’t support targeting employees, but neither do I advocate jumping to their defense without knowing the details of the particular issue. If it’s wild horse persecution, trapping, predator derbies, leases for grazing on public lands and subsequent eradication of predators to appease ranchers, forget it. No support from my corner. BLM and USFS has to earn my trust and support.

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  5. They sent you to Washington because it has much more bureaucratic red tape. It stalls things out. They probably looked through and saw that there were few if any reports concerning the advocates although guns were drawn on us, there was no legitimate reason for the violent behavior on part of the BLM. Yes it’s more of a coverup because a you all know….THE BLM LIES THROUGH THEIR TEETH AND THEN SOME.. Face facts, you know the truth..

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    • The BLM was on full display for the world to see at Bundy ranch, and although many advocates don’t find him a sympathetic character, the 1993 date when the BLM refused to renew his lease and his neighbors coincides with the signing of the 1992 UN CBD Article 8 (h) that was implemented through individual agencies until the 2005 in full force date for the 1997 International Plant Protection Convention.

      BLM slaughtered Bundy’s cattle after the camera’s left, so they clearly were not interested in the money. They were there to eradicate an alien species.

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  6. Sorry people, but for some offices you’ll be holding your hand on your ass for a very long time. I spent about an hour in my US Reps office last week discussing the Bureau of Land Management I’ll fated roundups, the waste of tax payers monies and the ill accounting of all the Wild horses and Burros. I am sure he will be re-elected again. He is one of a very few that do seemed very concerned. He asked me to bring all the documentation I could gather. This is just one more question that I can ask about. How in the World do these emp!oyees get away with this??? It is beyond my comprehension. The BLM needs to be totally dismantled and those responsible fired!!

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