A government watchdog group is ramping up its ongoing efforts to compel the Bureau of Land Management to release documents related to its failed roundup of cows owned by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility today filed a motion for summary judgment in its lawsuit against BLM asking U.S. District Judge Richard Leon to order the agency to turn over documents to the group regarding the April 2014 roundup of cattle illegally grazing on federal lands that was called off after an armed standoff with protesters.
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said today in a statement that BLM, after telling the group’s legal counsel that a release of the requested documents was imminent, has yet to hand over any of the records the group requested.
But Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman, said today that the agency submitted to PEER the information the group had requested. "On March 27, 2015 the Bureau of Land Management provided PEER with documents responsive to PEER’s April 18, 2014 FOIA request," she said in an emailed statement.
Ruch said in an interview that that’s not true.
"The [PEER] attorney that would have received them filed the motion today," he said, adding that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has told the group’s legal counsel that it is still reviewing the documents.
The Washington, D.C.-based group filed the FOIA requests in an effort to find out why BLM called off the high-profile, weeklong roundup of Bundy’s cattle on federal lands last spring and what it has done afterward to ensure its employees stayed safe.
The group is also seeking documents on whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to criminally prosecute Bundy, which, according to PEER, would make cattle impoundment BLM’s only option to bring Bundy to justice.
PEER’s motion asks the judge to rule that BLM has "wrongfully withheld the requested agency records" and to order BLM to turn over the requested records within 20 business days.
"BLM acts as if ignoring the Bundy debacle will make it go away, but it only makes it worse," Ruch said. "As it stands now — a year later — no lessons were learned, no precautions were taken, and BLM remains tucked tightly in a fetal position."
The anniversary last week of the standoff with Bundy and an armed militia that forced the government to release his cows back to federal lands sparked renewed criticism from environmentalists, Democrats and former Interior Department officials, who warned that the government’s inaction is emboldening Bundy and his states’ rights peers to continue challenging BLM’s jurisdiction in the West (Greenwire, April 3).
BLM a year ago estimated there were 908 illegal cattle spread across 1,200 square miles, including in BLM’s Gold Butte area and the National Park Service’s adjacent Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
The agency has declined to say how many cows are there today.
"Defendant made a decision on a nationally prominent resource enforcement action, and is now shielding that decision from public scrutiny using dilatory tactics that contravene democratic open government principles of our nation, enshrined in the FOIA," according to the PEER motion filed today.
"The public deserves to understand — in a timely fashion — how Defendant protects its public resource employees from violence and intimidation and how it executes its statutory duty to manage public land in charged situations such as the Bundy incident," the motion says. "Congress designed the FOIA to allow timely public scrutiny of, and debate about, important agency decisions like this one."
After gathering Bundy’s cattle, which had been illegally grazing on 160,000 BLM and National Park Service acres for more than a decade, BLM then turned the cattle loose with no explanation, PEER said in a release today that called the Bundy incident "the most egregious grazing trespass case" in the country’s history.
The way it was handled has raised doubts in the minds of BLM managers about whether their agency will support them if push comes to shove, PEER says.
"It should not take a federal lawsuit and months of foot-dragging to get an explanation for official actions splashed across the evening news," Ruch said. "BLM can move forward only if it starts being candid with the public it is supposed to serve."