Washington, DC — In an early test of the new law strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today sued the Interior Office of Inspector General to force release of the documents behind its recent investigation of declining law enforcement within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). According to FWS agents who cooperated with the Inspector General, they submitted statements and records detailing high-level corruption and obstruction of enforcement that were not included, or even alluded to, in the final report.
In February 2007 the Interior Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report entitled “Assessment of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement” which was notable both for its sweeping harsh conclusions and for its utter lack of any specific case descriptions. Alerted by FWS agents, PEER submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act for interview transcripts, correspondence and other materials relating, among other topics, to —
- The abrupt removal of Kevin Adams as the head of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement;
- Involvement by the Safari Club in FWS law enforcement investigations involving trafficking in animal trophies; and
- Obstruction of wildlife enforcement actions by political appointees within the Interior Department.
FWS special agents are charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other federal laws governing hunting and interstate or international transportation of wildlife.
“According to the Interior Inspector General, federal wildlife enforcement is in deep trouble but the Inspector General fails to specify why or what should be done about it,” stated PEER staff attorney Adam Draper, who filed the suit. “We are going to put on the record what the Inspector General kept closeted.”
In a response to PEER’s March 5, 2007 request, the Interior OIG wrote to PEER on April 3, 2007 that it would be “unable to respond to your request within the time limits established by FOIA [the Freedom of Information Act] due to a backlog of requests and other unforeseen circumstances.” After receiving no update or indication as to when the OIG intended to respond, on November 9, 2007, PEER appealed the delay to the Interior Office of Solicitor, a step required before filing suit. In a letter dated January 4, 2008, the Interior Solicitor’s Office indicated that it, too, would not make “a determination on your appeal within the time limits set in FOIA…”
“The Inspector General is supposed to police legal compliance by other Interior agencies yet routinely flouts laws that apply to it,” added Draper, noting that the new FOIA legislation signed by President Bush on New Year’s Eve is designed to put more emphasis on agencies meeting time limits for handling record requests and holding officials accountable for “arbitrary and capricious” disclosure denials. “When it comes to transparency, the Interior Inspector General strives to remain opaque.”