Holding the Government Accountable

Lawmakers Question Interior Secretary Over Whistleblower Reassignment

Joel Clement, a whistleblower who until recently served as director of the Interior Department's Office of Policy Analysis. (Photo provided by Wilkenfeld Law)

Bringing further attention to one of the most high-profile whistleblower cases to arise during the Trump administration so far, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are supporting a Department of Interior executive who says management retaliated against him because he disclosed how climate change is creating acute risks to Alaskan coastal communities.

The whistleblower case is set against the backdrop of an administration that pulled out of the Paris climate accord, took steps to pull back from other initiatives meant to mitigate global climate change fueled by carbon emissions, and sought to unleash the fossil fuel industry. The Interior Department is at the forefront of many of these policy changes.

The whistleblower, Joel Clement, until recently served as director of the Interior Department’s Office of Policy Analysis, where he worked with Alaska Native communities whose villages are endangered by flooding and rising sea levels experts say are caused by climate change. He also managed much of the Obama administration’s Arctic initiatives, implementing Executive Orders, serving on international councils, and helping create the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, an interagency body tasked with coordinating policy on the Arctic. Clement says he raised the tangible risks that climate change creates for Alaskan communities with White House officials in the Trump administration and senior Interior Department personnel, and it was “clear” to him that they were “uncomfortable” with his message. Clement also spoke before the United Nations in June about the danger climate change poses to Alaskan villages.

Six days after that UN presentation, Interior Department management moved Clement out of his position into a new one with the Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) under a “directed reassignment” effort launched by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. ONRR handles royalty payments from energy companies that draw fossil fuels from government lands. “I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up,” said Clement in a Washington Post op-ed published July 19. He filed a complaint the same day with the Office of Special Counsel, a federal office that investigates whistleblower retaliation.

Eight minority members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), wrote a letter to Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall last month asking her office to examine the reassignment of up to 50 members of the agency’s Senior Executive Service (SES) following the publication of Clement’s op-ed. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has been working to obtain resources to help at-risk coastal communities in her state, pledged to inquire about his case directly with Secretary Zinke.

The 1978 law establishing the SES states that agency heads can reassign executives to “best accomplish the agency’s mission,” but must also “protect senior executives from arbitrary or capricious actions” and “provide for an executive system which is guided by the public interest and free from improper political interference.” Zinke testified at a Senate hearing in June that his agency’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget funds just under 60,000 full-time employees, roughly 4,000 less than 2017. To reduce the work force, Zinke said, Interior “will rely on a combination of attrition, reassignments, and separation incentives,” indicating the reassignments were intended to push employees to voluntarily leave the agency.

Nudging out high-priced senior executives by placing them in unsuitable positions wastes both government and taxpayer money, as Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) pointed out. “Executive branch agencies need to make sure they’re getting the most value for taxpayers,” said Grassley, who co-chairs the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus. “Moving employees to positions where they don’t contribute isn’t good government.” A well-functioning ONRR staffed by qualified employees is needed. Royalty revenues are the second largest source of revenue for the US Treasury, but, as POGO has extensively documented, the government has systematically let fossil fuel companies and other mining companies reap huge profits without ensuring that taxpayers get a fair share of royalty revenue from drilling and mining on public lands. ONRR shouldn’t become a dumping ground for Interior to reassign public servants in a not-so-subtle attempt to drive them out.

Battles over climate change, industry influence, and scientific integrity may lead to even more fallout at Interior and other agencies. For this reason, it’s important for potential whistleblowers to have help navigating the confusing patchwork of protections. POGO recently created a tool that informs federal workers about the legal avenues available to them to disclose wrongdoing and seek redress for retaliation after they have blown the whistle. The Union of Concerned Scientists has also unveiled a new Science Protection Project where federal scientists can receive legal assistance for blowing the whistle on the suppression or manipulation of government-funded science. As always, POGO cautions employees to be thoughtful before becoming a whistleblower as it can be dangerous to one’s career.

Civil servants are protected from political interference in their jobs by federal law, and following the law is in the interest of everyone along the ideological spectrum. Disregarding federal employment and whistleblower statutes makes future employees vulnerable to meddling, while discouraging them from reporting wrongdoing that could save money and even lives. We applaud the lawmakers from both political poles of Capitol Hill for trying to prevent such a meltdown.