Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about the Interior Department’s alleged retaliation against an employee who spoke out on the dangers of climate change, warning the Trump administration against reassignments as a means to silence civil servants.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she plans to ask for an investigation into the claims career Senior Executive Service employee Joel Clement put forward in a Washington Post op-ed last week. Clement said he was involuntarily reassigned to an accounting position after serving as Interior’s director of the Office of Policy Analysis after sounding the alarm on the risks climate change posed to Alaska Native populations. The supervisor filed a complaint and disclosure with the Office of Special Counsel.
She went on to question Interior and Energy department nominees during a confirmation hearing last week on how they would protect the SES and guard against retaliatory or arbitrary reassignments just because executives “believe in science.”
“We need to make sure those individuals who have had the experience, who are involved in science, are going to continue to fulfill those responsibilities,” Cantwell said.
She added reorganizations should not provide agencies with an excuse to replace those with scientific experience with political appointees without those qualifications. “I’m concerned enough that I intend to ask the inspector general to look into it,” Cantwell said.
The senator was joined by seven of her Democratic colleagues on Monday in sending a letter to the IG calling the allegations "extremely troubling" and formally requesting the investigation.
“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.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who co-chairs the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, told Government Executive all employees feeling mistreated have the right to “pursue all options” and that those protections “exist to promote good government.”
“Executive branch agencies need to make sure they’re getting the most value for taxpayers,” Grassley said. “Moving employees to positions where they don’t contribute isn’t good government.” The senator helped write the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which clarified that employees disclosing evidence of censorship of scientific or technical information were protected under the law.
Just after Clement posted his op-ed, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report accusing the Trump administration of “sidelining science” on a systemic, governmentwide basis. Michael Halpern, deputy director of UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy, said Clement’s allegations were consistent with the findings of his report.
“They’re paralyzing the department,” Halpern said of the Trump administration. “It’s about scrubbing away any independent analysis that could be inconvenient to the policies they want to put forward.”
He added that every presidential administration tends to champion the data that is consistent with its policy positions, but under Trump it was happening “on steroids.”
“They’re being very creative about it,” Halpern said. “It’s everything from reassigning employees to render them ineffective to suspending advisory committees.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who holds a degree in mechanical engineering and served an AmeriCorps stint at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said at the confirmation hearing he was also concerned.
“What worries me the most about the current administration is the disdain and distrust that has been directed at science data and scientists,” Heinrich said.
In an interview with Government Executive last week, Clement said his reassignment had a “profound chilling effect” on his staff.
“They were really freaked out after my reassignment,” Clement said. Of the department writ large, he added, “Walking into that place is like walking into a morgue. People are looking over their shoulders wondering if they’re next.”
Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said Interior appeared to be using its "lawful authority" in reassigning Clement, but he applauded Congress for its oversight "to ensure that these personnel actions are proper and in the best interests of taxpayers."