NARA acted on the complaint, and posted a letter directing Interior to investigate and issue a report back to NARA within 30 days.

Washington—The National Archives and Records Administration should take corrective action to recover all federal records from former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s government-issued mobile phones after it was revealed that federal records had been destroyed or made irretrievable, according to a letter sent today by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Center for Biological Diversity to the agency. Despite the loss of the highly valuable communications of a former Cabinet secretary, the Interior Department failed to report the loss of records to NARA, a clear violation of the Federal Records Act.

During his tenure as Interior Secretary, three government phones were issued to Zinke: his original phone (which he temporarily lost), his replacement phone and his international phone. In one of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Freedom of Information Act cases, a sworn declaration filed from an Interior Department employee revealed that federal records from two of those phones had been destroyed or deemed irretrievable. After Zinke lost his original phone in November 2018, federal officials attempted to remotely wipe its contents because the original phone “contained sensitive government information.” 

However, according to the declaration, contents from Zinke’s international phone were unintentionally wiped instead, leaving the Department with no way to restore the data. While these records appear to have been destroyed due to incompetence, others were made inaccessible due to Zinke’s failure to provide agency officials with a correct passcode for his original phone when he turned it in at the end of his tenure. The Interior Department cannot force Zinke to provide the passcode for that phone, the declaration claimed, as he is no longer an employee of the Department. Despite this significant loss of records, the Interior Department apparently failed to report any of these data losses to NARA. 

“NARA must work to ensure that agencies are complying with record-keeping laws and that important government records are being preserved or retrieved whenever possible,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “Hiding and destroying federal records from top government officials poses a serious threat to the health of our democracy and exacerbates the crisis caused by an administration that has sought to buck all forms of oversight or transparency. NARA should investigate, require Interior to submit a report, and take all steps to recover any federal records from Mr. Zinke’s official phones.”

The president and his administration are legally bound to preserve government records under the Presidential Records Act and FRA. The FRA is a collection of statutes governing the creation, management and disposal of federal records so that Americans can keep track of their government’s actions. The FRA ensures the “[a]ccurate and complete documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government.” The law also requires that an “agency must report promptly any unlawful or accidental removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records in the custody of that agency to NARA.”

“It is important to find out what happened to a cabinet secretary’s phone data and what was done about it by agency officials in order to comply with the law.  Unfortunately, when it comes to Ryan Zinke and Trump’s Interior Department, it has been one scandal and one obfuscation after another.  Meanwhile, dirty and uneconomic coal continues to be extracted on federal public lands, at a loss to the American taxpayer and public health,” said Bill Snape with the Center for Biological Diversity, and a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

CREW previously filed a complaint against Zinke’s successor, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and his staff, for violating the FRA by purposefully failing to document Bernhardt’s daily schedule and meetings with industry lobbyists. In March, CREW requested NARA’s communications with the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior to ensure they are effectively communicating with agencies that have failed to comply with record keeping rules. In December, CREW sent a letter to NARA after it appeared that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield violated the FRA by instructing a CDC employee to destroy an email showing political interference by Trump administration appointees in scientific reports about the coronavirus.

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