Investigators: We Can’t Tell if Interior Dept. Reassignments Were Legal Due to Lack of Records

In a scathing report, the Inspector General describes questionable practices and why some staff believe the moves were related to their work on climate change.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke received a critical report from the department's Inspector General about the reassignment of 12 percent of the department's senior career employees shortly after he was appointed. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General concluded an investigation into the reassignment of 27 top career employees last year without being able to determine the reasons behind the moves or their legality, because, it said, the agency failed to document its decision-making process, despite federal guidance.

In a report issued Monday, the agency's watchdog examined the reassignment of the employees between June 15, 2017, and October 29, 2017.

Among those moved was Joel Clement, formerly the director of the Office of Policy Analysis. In a July 2017 op-ed, Clement accused the department under Secretary Ryan Zinke of transferring him to an obscure accounting post as retaliation for speaking out about the threats manmade climate change poses to Alaskan villages. Zinke has expanded greater fossil fuel development on federal lands and played down or erased consideration of climate impacts across the agency.

Clement said last year that his reassignment was part of a pattern within Interior under the new administration. After he filed a federal whistleblower complaint against the agency, eight senators asked the Inspector General's Office to undertake an inquiry.

The investigators found that Interior's Executive Resources Board (ERB)—made up of six voting members who were all political appointees at the time and who made the personnel decisions—"did not document its plan for selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it consistently apply the reasons it stated it used to select senior executives for reassignment. We also found that the ERB did not gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments, nor did it effectively communicate" with those re-assigned.  

The report continued: "As a result, many of the affected senior executives questioned whether these reassignments were political or punitive, based on a prior conflict with DOI leadership, or on the senior executive's nearness to retirement. Many executives speculated that multiple reasons applied or believed their reassignment may have been related to their prior work assignments, including climate change, energy, or conservation."

The Interior Department had 227 top career staff, designated as Senior Executive Service, at the time. The department has broad authority to reassign them, provided it follows certain rules. One is that the employee is reassigned to a position "for which the appointee is qualified," something Clement, a scientist and policy expert, took issue with when he was reassigned to an office that specializes in auditing and dispersing fossil fuel royalty income.  

The report noted that all but two of the reassignment notices were sent on June 15, and that the first reassignment started on July 2. It also noted that reassignments aren't allowed until 120 days after an agency head is appointed; July 2 would have been 123 days after Zinke's confirmation.

"Because the ERB had no documents related to its decisions, we relied on interviews with ERB members for the rationale behind the ERB's decisions," the investigators wrote. ERB members "told us that instead of consulting with the senior executives or with the senior executives' supervisors about performance and qualifications, the ERB used short biographies submitted by the senior executives in February 2017." Those biographies had been requested as "a way for the new political leadership to get to know the career" staff, they wrote. They also reported that, in most cases, the staff members' supervisors were not informed until hours before the notices were sent. 

Interior Deputy Secretary David L. Bernhard said in a written response to the report that the decisions the agency made were "lawful."

Clement, who resigned in October 2017, four months after he invoked the federal whistleblower protections, said in an emailed statement that he was "stunned by the level of incompetence that this report describes."

"There were so few records kept that the Inspector General can't even make a determination of the legality of the reassignment actions," he wrote. "It's remarkable that the political staff at Interior would be so blithe, thoughtless, and careless during a time of intense scrutiny. It begs the question, what did they have to hide?"

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