Lawmaker Launches Investigation Into SES Reassignments

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., requested documents related to new positions for about 50 Senior Executive Service employees earlier this year. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., requested documents related to new positions for about 50 Senior Executive Service employees earlier this year. Alex Brandon / AP

House Democrats are pushing back on the Trump administration’s quest to reassign senior executives in government, launching an investigation into job movements at the Interior Department.

The reassignments “raise serious concerns” about retaliation and wasteful spending, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wrote in a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Cummings requested documents related to new positions for about 50 Senior Executive Service employees earlier this year. The reassignments caused a particular stir after Joel Clement blew the whistle on alleged retaliation, saying his new job minimized his skillset and that he was transferred to the new position as a direct result of his speaking out on climate change. Clement recently resigned from the department, months after bringing the alleged reprisal to light.

“The use of personnel reassignments to punish employees you believe are not ‘loyal’ or to try to drive employees to leave the department could constitute prohibited personnel practices that violate the merit systems protections,” Cummings wrote in his letter.

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Clement has filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, which the watchdog agency is currently reviewing. His reassignment has prompted bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill and outcry from legal scholars.

In June testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told lawmakers he planned to shed 4,000 employees through “a combination of attrition, reassignments and separation incentives.” Cummings in his letter joined Clement in speculating that comment amounted to an open admission Interior had reassigned him in hopes that the executive would simply quit. Zinke went on to say at the hearing, however, that the Senior Executive Service “by definition gets moved.”

Interior has claimed the transfers of about one-fifth of its SES staff were designed to “better serve the taxpayer and the department’s operations.” Clement said the reassignment was in response to his public warnings of the impact of climate change on Native Alaskans.

“It is a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act to reassign employees in retaliation for protected disclosures that they reasonably believe are evidence of substantial and specific dangers to public health or safety,” Cummings said. He expressed concern many Interior employees may have received treatment similar to Clement.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s top Democrat asked for the documents on all civil service transfers by Oct. 19, including information on the associated costs and how the new positions would “better serve taxpayer interests and the department’s operations.”

Several Democratic senators previously requested Interior’s inspector general launch a formal investigation into the reassignments.

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