Government watchdog files lawsuit against federal agency overseeing Haskell for withholding investigative report

photo by: Journal-World File

A sign at the entrance to Haskell Indian Nations University is shown Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

A government watchdog nonprofit trying to obtain a report detailing an investigation into a number of alleged crimes at Haskell Indian Nations University filed suit Friday in Washington, D.C., against the federal agency that oversees Haskell.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — a nonprofit agency that, in part, assists public employees in fighting for accountability and transparency in government actions — filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Indian Education in April. That request was prompted by the Journal-World’s coverage of demands by Haskell students to publicize a report of a six-month investigation that students claim took place on campus during 2022 and purportedly looked into allegations of sexual abuse, embezzlement and other wrongdoing.

The BIE withheld hundreds of pages of records related to that request, and the nonprofit submitted an appeal with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor. The Department of the Interior oversees the BIE. But Jeff Ruch, who submitted the FOIA request on PEER’s behalf, told the Journal-World Thursday the nonprofit was unable to get confirmation of a resolution on the matter from the Solicitor’s Office.

That led to Friday’s lawsuit, which claims that the BIE failed to disclose records wrongfully and failed to respond within the statutory deadline to PEER’s appeal. The lawsuit notes, as Ruch told the Journal-World earlier this month, that the BIE chose to withhold 528 pages of records in full, which PEER is asking be released in full.

“(PEER) has exhausted its administrative remedies and now seeks an order from this court requiring (the BIE) to immediately produce the records sought in (PEER’s) FOIA request and appeal, as well as other appropriate relief, including attorney’s fees and costs,” the lawsuit reads.

As the Journal-World reported, the BIE cited a few exemptions as its reasons for withholding documents in the nonprofit’s FOIA request. Among them were “deliberative process privilege,” which is intended to protect the decision-making process of government agencies and encourage the frank exchange of ideas on legal or policy matters, and also a claim that PEER’s request didn’t establish enough of a public interest to outweigh the privacy interests of the individuals whose personal information and other records would be included in the scope of the request.

The lawsuit notes that PEER reached out to the Department of the Interior’s FOIA appeals office three times — on July 6, July 13 and July 14 — to ascertain the status of the nonprofit’s appeal and never received a response. Ruch told the Journal-World earlier this month that federal agencies have 20 working days from the date they receive an appeal to respond or assert a need to extend the time limit.

According to the lawsuit, that date would have been even sooner than PEER’s attempts in early July to contact the appeals office; PEER submitted its appeal June 7.



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