8 Senators Call for Probe of ‘Arbitrary’ Reassignment of Federal Scientists

The senators' letter, following a whistleblower complaint from a climate scientist in the Interior Department, says there may be as many as 50 similar cases.

Sen. Maria Cantwell with Sens. Ron Wyden, Debbie Stabenow, and Lisa Murkowski
Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell (center), Ron Wyden and Debbie Stabenow, wrote to the deputy inspector general of the Interior Department asking her to look into the reassignment of scientists. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (right) of Alaska also said she would talk with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Credit: Jim Watson/Getty Images

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Eight U.S. senators called for an investigation today after a federal climate scientist filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that he had been arbitrarily reassigned by the Trump administration in what he believed was retaliation for speaking out publicly about the dangers climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.

The scientist, Joel Clement, had been working on climate adaptation in Alaska for the Department of Interior when he was moved to an obscure accounting position that deals with fossil fuel royalty payments.

The senators, all members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked the deputy inspector general in the Department of Interior to look into allegations that as many as 50 Senior Executive Service employees at the department have been arbitrarily reassigned.

“We believe that any reassignment of highly trained, highly competent senior executives within the department from the positions in which they may best use their training and competence to accomplish the department’s mission and best serve the public interest to sinecures where their talents are wasted would constitute a serious act of mismanagement, a gross waste of public funds, and an abuse of authority,” the senators wrote.

The Senior Executive Service was created to provide continuity in the management of public programs, with career experts in their subject areas serving under the political appointees. Under the law, agency heads can reassign senior executives, provided the changes are made “to best accomplish the agency’s mission.”

“Any suggestion that the department is reassigning SES employees to force them to resign, to silence their voices, or to punish them for the conscientious performance of their public duties is extremely troubling and calls for the closest examination,” the senators wrote. No Republicans signed the letter.

The letter came just days after Clement, formerly the director of the Office of Policy Analysis in the Interior Department, filed a formal complaint about his reassignment and published an op-ed in the Washington Post describing his experience.

In an interview with InsideClimate News, Clement said he thought it was “fishy” when he was reassigned, and that those suspicions were quickly confirmed. “When [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke testified the next week that they were going to use reassignments to trim the workforce, then you could really smell a rat,” Clement said.

The day after Clement spoke out, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) raised concerns about the reassignments at a Congressional hearing. “It’s a lot of confusion and, in my sense, a lot of undermining science,” she said. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also told E&E News that she planned to speak with Zinke about Clement’s case.

Cantwell was joined in the request for an investigation by seven colleagues on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). They asked Interior Department Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall to report back to them, as well as to Secretary Zinke and the appropriate committees in Congress.