The U.S. Department of Interior has issued an order to promote transparency and accountability in consent decrees and settlement agreements. Secretarial Order 3368 was cheered by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“The Department of Interior is shining light on a corner of government most people don’t even know exists,” AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen said. “Basic transparency demands that citizens know what their government is doing. When activists sue, they can tie up the government with dozens of frivolous claims but still recover attorneys’ fees if a judge upholds even one, solitary claim.”
“Ranchers operating on public land are subjected to relentless, coordinated litigation designed to force settlements with the Department of the Interior,” said Ethan Lane, Executive Director of the Public Lands Council and NCBA Federal Lands. “These actions waste taxpayer dollars, divert precious resources away from conservation efforts, and jeopardize the livelihoods of America’s food and fiber producers.”
The department has committed to:
- Establish a publicly accessible webpage that details ongoing litigation.
- Post a searchable list and text of final judicial and administrative consent decrees and settlement agreements that govern departmental actions along with details of attorneys’ fees paid.
- Post any proposed consent decree or settlement agreement that commits DOI to seek a particular appropriation or budget authorization from Congress or formally reprogram appropriated funds.
- Publish notice of proposed consent decrees and settlements in the Federal Register, and provide a public comment period of at least 30 days.
Interior alone paid out more than $4.4 billion in monetary awards under terms of 460 settlement agreements and consent decrees between Jan. 1, 2012, and Jan. 19, 2017, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. In other words, Interior paid out an average of more than $800 million a year while keeping key aspects of litigation secret.
“Faced with a barrage of allegations that sap agency time and resources whether they have merit or not, the government is too often motivated to capitulate through secret settlements,” AFBF said in a media statement. “Some agencies have even been known to invite litigation with the purpose of entering a settlement to provide political cover for controversial agency policies. And in settling, agencies often agree to pay legal fees, which further fuels the sue-and-settle machine. This action is a solid first step to fixing the problem. Every other federal agency should follow suit.”
Source: Office of the Interior, NCBA, AFBF