The Office of Special Counsel, an independent U.S. agency that protects whistleblowers and investigates prohibited practices that affect government employees, declined this week to further investigate a questionnaire sent from the Trump transition team to the Energy Department.
The memo asked for the names of staffers who attended international climate change meetings or interagency meetings related to the economic consequences of climate change.
In a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Carolyn Lerner, the special counsel, noted that the Trump transition team had said the questionnaire “was not authorized” and that “transition officials are not considered federal employees” legally.
“The Energy Department also stated it did not provide employee names to the President-elect’s transition officials, and no Department employee has reported a prohibited personnel action resulting from the questionnaire,” Lerner continued.
However, Lerner also elaborated on the kinds of practices that will be prohibited once the Trump government (like any government) takes over, noting that “any effort to chill scientific research or discourse is inconsistent with the intent of the” 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. In early 2017, Lerner said, the office will “contact the incoming heads of all agencies and offer training on the whistleblower law, the Hatch Act, and the other laws enforced by OSC,” as part of a program to train and certify government employees and agencies for compliance with whistleblower laws.
Lerner’s letter was provided by Blumenthal’s office. The Office of Special Counsel declined to comment for this story.
Blumenthal, who sent the original letter requesting the investigation with eight Democratic Senate colleagues, said in an interview that “the special counsel is saying, we have no clear jurisdiction here because the transition team is not an official governmental entity, and employees for the transition team are not federal officials.”
“But,” he continued, “the tone of the letter clearly is to take seriously the concerns we’ve raised, and in effect, sort of raise a warning, or an alarm, about this practice.”
There the matter might have ended — for now — but Blumenthal also drew attention to reports in The Washington Post this week that at the State Department, transition team inquiries have focused on the funding of environmental organizations and programs devoted to “gender-related staffing, programming, and funding.”
According to The Post’s reporting, the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs was asked last week by the Trump transition team, “How much does the Department of State contribute annually to international environmental organizations in which the department participates?”
According to another story in The Post, meanwhile, on Wednesday, the transition team sent a request to a range of State Department offices for information on programs that “promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
“They seem to be continuing the practice, of asking very pointed and loaded questions, seemingly as part of an agenda,” Blumenthal said. “And if they continue that, we’ll pursue it.”