The Interior Department’s reassignment of a large swath of its top career employees sparked confusion and pushback, recently released internal emails show, prompting some executives to quit and others to question the wisdom of the forced transfers.
The decision to require roughly three-dozen Senior Executive Service employees to take on new roles “as a condition of employment” was met with criticism since the reassignments came to light in July, but Interior has defended them as in the business interest of the department. Some of the transfers were justified because Secretary Ryan Zinke wanted to move more jobs out of headquarters offices in Washington, D.C., and Denver, the emails recently released through a Freedom of Information Act request show, though more than half of them pushed or kept the employees in the capital region.
In some cases, Daniel Jorjani, Zinke’s choice for principal deputy solicitor, directed human resources staff to make organizational changes by taking “whatever administrative actions that are required.” The specifics of those changes were redacted in the released emails.
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Employees who were reassigned, as well as those awaiting them at their new posts, often expressed surprise and confusion in their communications with HR staff regarding the changes.
One SESer responded to his reassignment notice with follow up questions, and went days without getting a response.
“I was beginning to worry that maybe I had just dreamed that I had pushed the send key,” the executive said when he finally received a response from Mary Pletcher, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for human capital and diversity.
Another reassigned supervisor expressed confusion over basic details of her new job.
“You stated the effective date to ‘show up’ at the [Bureau of Land Management] is July 10, 2017, but I still do not know the exact location I am to show up to or who to report to or at what time, etc.,” the executive said to Pletcher.
One senior executive said he was reassigned to a position to head up a program that was zeroed out in President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request, which he said concerned him because it would mark “a significant departure from how the program is currently administered.”
“There have been no indications from management as to how the program will function in the future,” the executive said in response to his reassignment. “In order to perform my proposed new duties, I will need to understand the direction of future programmatic operational strategy so that my leadership and performance are aligned with agency's science strategic goals.”
Bruce Loudermilk was reassigned just eight months after he moved with his family from Alaska to Washington, D.C., to take the job as BIA director. His proposed new job was in the Office of Special Trustee for American Indians (OST), an office in which he had previously worked.
“My appointment as BIA Director is a culmination of over 27 years of dedicated service, during which I acquired necessary education and skillsets through various organizations and positions, always advancing and always contributing to the mission of the organization and those we serve,” Loudermilk said. “I believe that the proposed reassignment to the position in OST does not serve the department’s stated purpose in conducting these reassignments, which is to add new insights and ideas to the bureaus and regions.”
Loudermilk ultimately negotiated to take a nine-month assignment at OST in Albuquerque, N.M. Three SESers retired in lieu of taking the “directed” reassignment, while another accepted a “voluntary downgrade” to a General Schedule-15 position. Interior opted not to follow through with several reassignments after initially sending notices.
In some cases, emails showed the Trump administration interfering with SES jobs outside of the reassignments. One executive had his appointment to the SES corps approved by the Qualifications Review Board in February 2017, but Pletcher told her colleagues to "pause on telling anyone" about it as she would have to determine if the "new folks wants [sic] to move forward with it." Months later, Pletcher and others decided to inform the applicant that the Executive Resources Board, a panel made up of Trump appointees, had decided not to move forward with his promotion. In another instance, Jason Thompson, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services, said in an email he was trying to fill an opening for his deputy but it had been delayed by “upstairs.”
“I am just feeling like I am in a bit of a vacuum on this one without anyone who can give me any idea where we are in the process,” Thompson said.
Critics of the executive shuffling have accused Interior of moving employees as a form of political retribution or as an incentive for employees who had worked in Obama-era priorities to leave the department. In one of the cases in which an executive did opt to leave, Pletcher in an email to a colleague said one executive she had spoken to “would be comfortable with retiring.”
Ten of the reassignments did or would have required executives to relocate. In some cases, Interior sought to reassign executives before political appointees were installed so the department did not have to wait the required 120 days to issue the notices. Michelle Oxyer, an employee in the executive resources division of the HR office, forwarded to Pletcher and Jorjani a clarification on the department’s ability to involuntarily reassign employees before the secretary was appointed “as long as the executive’s immediate supervisor is not a newly appointed non-career appointee.”
The emails were released after one of the reassigned executives, Joel Clement, issued a FOIA request. Interior initially declined to release the emails, but Clement sued and was successful. The former Interior employee rose to prominence after speaking out against the reassignments, saying they were politically motivated. He has since resigned from federal service.
“The story that it told was just how sloppy the whole process was,” Clement said of the documents. He added that Interior officials had identified executives to transfer and subsequently worked backward to find a business reason to justify those decisions.
Clement also won the release of emails related to the department’s policies on climate change. Political appointees frequently engaged with a career worker named Indur Goklany, an outspoken climate change denier and former employee of Clement’s in the Office of Policy Analysis. Goklany shared papers he had published in the Heartland Institute, such as “Carbon Dioxide: The Good News,” with top political appointees. At the direction of political leadership, the emails show, he helped identify public-facing references to climate change on Interior’s website and suggested alterations to them and to the department’s mission statement.
Clement said there was little indication the political appointees actually listened to Goklany, but “they needed someone to be a soldier on climate change, so they were very happy to have him.” Goklany is still at the Office Policy Analysis, Clement said, but he is on a “shadow detail” to assist Zinke’s top aides. Emails showed Jim Cason, Zinke’s associate deputy secretary, requested Goklany serve as his adviser but that Clement remain “on paper as the supervisor.”
Another appointee, Douglas Domenech, the assistant secretary for Insular Areas, accused U.S. Geological Survey scientists of “stepping outside their wheelhouse” for suggesting in a report that “the warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966.” Domenech's email was sent to Cason, Goklany and Scott Cameron, an appointee serving as principal deputy assistant secretary. Cameron responded, “We need to watch for inflammatory adverbs and adjectives in their press releases.”