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Interior’s top lawyer plays key role as troubleshooter, records reveal

The Interior Department’s principal deputy solicitor has become an influential player, weighing in on broad policy interpretations as well as local land-use questions.
The Interior Department’s principal deputy solicitor has become an influential player, weighing in on broad policy interpretations as well as local land-use questions. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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In April 2017, pesticide industry officials were eager to meet with the Interior Department’s principal deputy solicitor about a provision in the Endangered Species Act they viewed as time-
consuming and complex.

Representatives from the agrochemical trade association CropLife America and an affiliate, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), questioned the requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency consult with the two other agencies managing endangered species — the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service — before licensing pesticides.

The industry groups appeared pleased with the reception Daniel Jorjani gave them, according to emails just released under the Freedom of Information Act. “Thank you for meeting with us on Friday and the thoughtful discussion,” RISE President Aaron Hobbs wrote Jorjani afterward. “We look forward to working with you and the team.”

In January, the Trump administration formed an interagency working group to review the policy. CropLife President Jay Vroom responded, “It’s encouraging to see that our work with the environmental and farming communities, and the administration has resulted in a positive step toward solving this important and complex issue.”

The exchanges — among many in more than 1,000 pages of documents released in response to a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group — highlight the influential role Jorjani has played at the Interior Department since President Trump took office. A member of the initial transition team who began working there after the inauguration, he has run the department’s legal arm in the absence of a Senate-confirmed solicitor.

It is his second federal tour. Jorjani worked at the department under George W. Bush, leaving to serve as a top adviser to conservative billionaire Charles G. Koch and as a troubleshooter for some of the companies and groups that have sought his help since his return to government, according to the documents. He has emerged within the Interior Department as an influential policy player, issuing opinions on legal questions including how to enforce protections for migratory birds and treat existing mining claims on federal lands.

More than 300 lawyers work in the solicitor’s office, and in August the president picked Idaho corporate attorney Ryan Nelson to lead it. But the Senate never voted to confirm Nelson, and he withdrew when Trump nominated him to instead fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Jorjani’s involvement in so many policy matters stems from the nature of his position, which the released documents show ranges from broad policy interpretations to local land-use questions.

“As Principal Deputy Solicitor, Mr. Jorjani’s responsibilities include any and all legal issues within the Department of the Interior, which is obviously of an immense scope and depth,” Vander Voort said in an email.

On July 10, for example, California attorney W. Lee Smith wrote Jorjani to explain he had “a shooting range client” that stood to lose its lease on a property owned by the Cordova Park and Recreation District in Sacramento County. Since the park district received the property from the Interior Department in 1977, Smith said, it “needs to get the approval of the Secretary of the Interior in order to change anything.”

On July 18, the day before the park district’s board was set to vote on the issue, Jorjani informed Smith that Interior Department officials planned to send a “signed memo” to the National Park Service director informing him that any change to the shooting center’s lease would have to be approved by the agency and “would need to be reviewed by the Solicitor’s Office” before it could go through.

In the end, Marksmanship Consultants could not reach an agreement with the park district, which wanted the company to help finance nearly $2 million in upgrades to the facility.

Patrick Larkin, the district’s director, said in an interview that “the infrastructure was in disrepair” and that the company had violated the terms of the original deed by operating a retail firearms outlet in the recreation area. Marksmanship Consultants did not respond to a request for comment.

Other times, Jorjani connected gun rights advocates to other agency lawyers. On Aug. 11, he emailed Smith, who has represented the National Rifle Association in multiple lawsuits, and David Lehman, deputy director and general counsel for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.

“I hope all is going well with your efforts to defend the 2nd Amendment. I would like to introduce you to one of our talented lawyers in the Solicitor’s office, Josh Campbell,” Jorjani wrote. “This administration values its working relationship with the NRA and Josh would serve as a good point-of-contact on the legal side of DOI for you and your colleagues.”

Neither Smith nor the NRA responded to a request for comment.

According to the emails, after Jorjani met last spring with the pesticide industry officials to discuss streamlining regulations, they followed up in July by inviting him to a “brief cocktail reception” and dinner at the association’s offices to discuss the species law — neither of which Jorjani attended, Hobbs said in a statement Wednesday.

Hobbs noted that he and Vroom just “met once” with the Interior Department lawyer “to discuss our industry’s support for greater interagency cooperation” on pesticide licensing.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, criticized these interactions as a sign that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his deputies were elevating corporate interests over other priorities.

“Zinke and his appointees are shoulder-deep in the Washington swamp, handing out favors to their corporate friends and allies while abusing the public trust and sacrificing our precious lands,” Brune said in a statement.

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