DOI Caught Lying About a Staff Purge. Congress Has Questions

April 16, 2018 | 9:35 am
Joel Clement
Former Contributor

Last week, the Interior Department Inspector General’s office released its report on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s controversial mass reassignment of senior executives last summer, requested by alarmed Senators shortly after the reassignments took place. 

Secretary Zinke does not like what they found.  

The report painted a picture of incompetence, discrimination, and political retaliation. It described how the board that made the reassignment decisions was politicized, how they covered their tracks by keeping no records, and how they failed to “remember” anything about their instructions or motivations. The report described a sham of a process that was clearly intended as a purge. 

As if intent on demonstrating just how Zinke would be leading the agency, his team checked every box for poor workplace management. It was so damning that House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, immediately smelled a rat and has requested that Chairman Rob Bishop hold a hearing immediately “on the disturbing findings.” This story is not yet over. 

As one of the reassigned executives, I had a front row seat to this debacle last summer. Now, to be clear, every new administration moves a few senior executives around for various reasons when they take over, but no agency from any administration has come in and reassigned dozens of career senior executives at one time, and certainly not with such apparent intent to dislodge us from the civil service entirely.  

To do this they moved people into jobs unrelated to their area of expertise, many were moved across the country, they were reassigned without any prior consultation, many of them were retirement age, most had families, and a very disproportionate number of them were American Indians.  

So for starters, this was just horrible workplace management.  

But then Secretary Ryan Zinke, the only Senate-confirmed employee at DOI at the time, testified to Congress the following week that he would use such reassignments, along with attrition and other means, to trim the DOI workforce by 4,000 people.  

As any thoughtful individual would surmise, reassignments only trim the workforce if they cause employees to quit, and while senior executives can certainly be moved, even involuntarily, it’s unlawful to use reassignments to get employees to quit. Zinke admitted his unlawful strategy directly to Congress that day. 

We work for the American people. We are not there to play politics for any president or cabinet member. Yet Secretary Zinke last year demanded loyalty to President Trump and effectively pledged to get rid of employees who wouldn’t play along.   

Knowing all that, I was still stunned by what the IG found. 

The Executive Resources Board (ERB), the body making the reassignment decisions, is meant to consist of an equal number of political appointees and civil servants. The IG found that the Zinke ERB consisted only of recent political appointees.  The board did not document any sort of plan or reasons for selecting executives to reassign; it did not review executive qualifications or gather other information necessary to make such decisions; and it did not communicate with either the executives or their managers before make the reassignments.

There was a complete absence of a paper trail for the reassignment actions – a remarkable and reckless approach to governing that can only suggest that they did not want their reasons known.  

The IG even caught them in a lie. ERB members claimed that they had three criteria for moving executives – moving people that had been in their jobs for a long time, moving people out of Washington DC, and moving people to new functional areas. The IG found no evidence at all to show that they evaluated the reassignments against those stated criteria, and the ERB members were unable to recall the criteria that they ultimately used instead. 

While the IG certainly found the ERB members to be incompetent and unable to remember even the broadest details of their efforts, it would be naïve to think that this was simply a matter of incompetence. If they had legitimate reasons for moving us around, you can bet they would have recorded them. Instead, these actions can only be interpreted as malicious, retaliatory, and discriminatory. 

But when the IG asked the executives themselves, the criteria became quite clear. Seventeen of us indicated that the reassignment was likely political retaliation or punishment, and 12 of us felt that that it was probably related to former work on issues such as climate change, energy, and conservation. This ERB was not even subtle about its objectives – they moved me, the climate policy advisor, to the office that collects and disperses oil and gas royalty income. 

Behind this keystone cops display lurks a dogged determination to reward supporters and purge the agency of senior executives who might not salute the Secretary’s flag. To accomplish this they assembled their ERB hit squad of six political appointees who could be relied upon to sign off on whatever the political leadership decided. It’s hard to imagine a scenario that would more clearly demonstrate a politicization of the civil service workforce. 

This is a long-established no-no; there are important reasons to keep the civil service partitioned from the political winds and whims of each new administration. The mission of the agency depends on operational consistency in administering programs and services. While every incoming administration would love to bend the career ranks to their every wish, they generally know better than to try, and there are laws and regulations to prevent it. 

The Trump Administration just doesn’t know better, and the consequences are serious.  

In addition to muzzling science and stifling important climate change efforts on behalf of Americans, this purge adds up to political retaliation, discrimination, wasted taxpayer dollars, and a callous disregard for the career staff at the agency. Thankfully, some good folks in Congress have taken notice and I hope to see a deeper examination of these issues in the near future. Each of the ERB members should be forced to testify, on the record, that they just don’t remember how or why they reassigned us. This precedent can’t stand. 

I’ve left federal service for now, but my thoughts go out to all of the career folks who still have to endure this type of work environment, keeping their heads down and wondering who’s next. I hope our institutions can stand up to these abuses of power so they can get back to work serving the American people.