The Interior Department failed to spell out any coherent or consistent plan to support its reassignment of nearly three-dozen career senior executives last year, according to a new report, leading to the impression the new jobs were chosen for political or punitive reasons.
The lack of documentation surrounding Interior’s controversial reassignments led the department’s inspector general to conclude it could not say definitively whether they were in compliance with federal legal requirements. The department did not follow governmentwide guidance in putting together the board that oversaw the transfers, the IG said, and left senior executives in the dark about their new positions in both the lead up and aftermath of their official notifications.
The reassignments have drawn bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill, and Interior employees have said they created a “profound chilling effect” at the department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has defended the moves as in compliance with federal laws and in the best interest of the department. Statute guiding the Senior Executive Service allows for directed reassignments so long as they are to positions “for which the appointee is qualified.” The IG, however, found Interior did not make those determinations prior to issuing the mandatory transfers.
“We found no documented evidence—nor were we provided a methodology or record of discussion—that the ERB reviewed the senior executives' qualifications before proposing reassignments,” the IG said.
The reassignments were proposed by an Executive Resources Board chartered by Zinke. While Office of Personnel Management guidance suggests ERBs consist of a “balanced” mix of personnel including both career and political staff, all of the voting members on Interior’s board were political appointees. The board failed to issue a charter laying out its roles and purpose, as OPM recommends. It also did not document its activities, such as by assigning a secretary, taking notes or recording votes.
“We found that the ERB did not document its plan for selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it consistently apply the reasons it stated it used to select senior executives for reassignment,” the IG said.
Senior leaders at Interior provided only broad explanations for how they chose which employees to reassign, despite “repeated attempts” by the auditors to gain more specifics. The officials said the goals included moving senior executives out of Washington, D.C., sharing knowledge and limiting employees’ time in one position. None of the 35-proposed reassignments met all three of those goals, the IG found, and four of them met none. Twenty-two transfers met just one goal.
Four of the employees were moved from one Washington job to another, while nine had served in their existing positions for less than five years. The ERB’s failure to review the SESers qualifications prior to transferring them mitigated their ability to ensure the executives would be spreading their knowledge throughout the department. In two cases, the employees’ new positions had no job description for two weeks after the reassignment notices went out.
“We found no evidence that the ERB evaluated the proposed reassignments against the three stated reasons,” the IG said.
About one-third of the reassigned executives had previously been subject to a directed reassignment, but all of them reported being involved in that process and having discussions with their supervisors before receiving their official notices. That did not occur last year, the IG said, and even the employees’ supervisors and bureau chiefs were only made aware a couple of hours before the notices went out.
In a few cases, Interior canceled its planned reassignments after sending notices, but never followed up with the employees to tell them the plans had changed. One executive told the IG he “could not plan professionally or personally” while in that limbo period and had prematurely ended his lease.
Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the IG report confirmed what career executives at Interior have "long suspected."
"The agency did not comply with legal requirements; ignored regulatory guidance; and had no documented plan, methodology, or real business case that justified their actions," Valdez said. “The result was a slipshod justification for abuse of taxpayer resources, including the agency’s career executive talent assets. Rules and regulations exist to prevent abuses, and in this case, the agency’s failure to follow the rules was detrimental to the mission of the Interior Department, wasted taxpayer dollars, and eroded the trust between senior federal leaders and their agencies.”
The lack of stated goals and ongoing communication led 17 of the reassigned employees to conclude the moves were punitive or political in nature. Most of those executives told the IG they thought the reassignments were in response to their previous work, on issues including climate change and conservation. Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt told the IG in response to a draft report he continued “to believe the actions taken by the ERB and covered by the draft evaluation are lawful.”
The IG’s findings mirror a Government Executive review of internal emails from Interior leadership made public last month through a records request. Those communications showed that the reassignments included some political motivations and spawned confusion at many levels throughout the department.
The auditors said Interior had taken steps to comply with its recommendations to document a plan for all SES reassignments, communicate that plan to affected executives in advance, establish its costs for the transfers and follow OPM’s ERB guidelines. SEA's Valdez said those steps were "inadequate" and called for "legislative and regulatory remedies."
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the report justified his past calls for more congressional intervention.
"Thank goodness for the inspector general, whose report today shines a light on the department’s abusive practices," Cummings said. "This report underscores the urgent need for the Oversight Committee to finally do its job and start conducting oversight of the actions the department has already taken, as well as the major reorganization now being planned.”
This story was updated with additional comment and to clarify David Bernhardt’s position.