By MIA STEINLE
In the hierarchy of internet-age fears, accidentally sending a sensitive email to the person it's about is one of the worst blunders someone can commit. Unfortunately for the Department of the Interior (DOI), it looks like a staffer recently did just that--or at least gave us a revealing look into how the Department responds to congressional requests for information.
In response to Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) request for data for Subsidies of the Rich and Famous, his new report on tax giveaways and federal grants enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans, DOI sent the senator’s office a packet of information this June. But Coburn's office also received—apparently erroneously—an internal email between Department staffers. The email includes a discussion of which data DOI should share with Senator Coburn in response to his request for certain information on individual recipients of DOI grants and cooperative agreements—that is, financial awards.
In the email, which Coburn put online in a packet of supplemental documents for the report, one DOI staffer writes to another, “Should we provide more information than necessary?” She explains, “I am very concerned about the description [of Coburn’s report] knowing their proclivity for poking at projects that they do not think are meritorious. For example the Rock Art Inventory.”
(A 2007 DOI document shows that the agency approved $118,000 to be spent on a three-year project to take inventory of rock art sites in one Nevada county.)
Coburn’s report highlights this email exchange, listing DOI alongside the Department of Commerce and the Department of Homeland Security as agencies that were “less than forthcoming or even sought to limit the information produced” for the senator’s research. Coburn used the agency data he could gather to argue that, each year, “millionaires enjoy benefits from tax giveaways and federal grant programs totaling $30 billion.” Coburn concludes, “Fleecing the taxpayer while contributing nothing is not the American way.”
While Coburn only requested five fields of data (one of which DOI could not provide), it’s clear from this email that DOI possesses and could easily distribute data on over a dozen relevant fields. The Department ultimately provided Coburn with a list of the other data it had available, but this incident raises the question: when faced with requests for information, how often do agencies withhold apparently easily accessible data? Furthermore, why should Members of Congress—or members of the public, for that matter—have to request this sort of data? There’s no reason why the public shouldn’t have access to information about DOI spending.
Mia Steinle is a POGO Investigator.