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Zinke says a third of Interior’s staff is disloyal to Trump and promises ‘huge’ changes

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, accompanied by Republican lawmakers, signs an order in March lifting a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and a related order on coal royalties. (Molly Riley/AP)

In a speech to a federal advisory board dominated by oil and gas industry executives, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claimed that nearly a third of his staff is disloyal to President Trump, saying that workers in Washington are reluctant to relax regulations to permit increased mining for coal and drilling for natural gas and oil on public land.

Zinke promised a “huge” change by restructuring staff positions and possibly shifting decision-making positions in the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation from Washington to points out West in the speech Monday to the National Petroleum Council. His remarks were first reported by the Associated Press.

“I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” the secretary said, according to participants. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, invoked military and seafaring jargon to describe his approach to running the department.

He compared his experience taking over Interior to capturing a pirate ship where “only the captain and the first mate row over” to take over the vessel. The audience laughed in response.

Zinke explained that he wanted to ensure Interior officials accelerated federal permitting for drilling and mining activities on federal land, saying it’s necessary to relocate some of the department’s major divisions to “push the generals where the fight is.”

The speech reflected a broader effort by Zinke to shake up the department. He told a Senate panel in June that he wanted to strip 4,000 employees from the Interior Department — about 8 percent of the full-time staff — as part of meeting Trump’s proposed budget cuts. Attrition, reassignments and buyouts would be employed to achieve his goal, Zinke said.

If that didn’t work, he said, layoffs could follow. That same month, Zinke ordered the reassignments of 50 Senior Executive Service employees, forcing many into jobs for which they had little experience and that were in different locations. At least one executive, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife director stationed in Atlanta, quit.

Interior’s Office of Inspector General is evaluating the reassignments to determine whether they violate  the U.S. code, which instructs an agency’s leadership to notify affected personnel well in advance of reassignment and give them a chance to choose a job option. Several executives said their reassignment notices arrived out of the blue with no prior discussion.

The National Petroleum Council advises the Energy Department on policies related to the oil and gas industry, and both Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry delivered opening remarks and took questions at the group’s annual meeting. At one point, according to a participant, Perry — who served on the boards of a couple of energy companies before joining the Cabinet — said he was “proud” to be “part of the energy industry.”

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined several requests to comment or confirm Zinke’s remarks Tuesday. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, slammed the speech.

“The public servants at [Interior] deserve respect from the man charged with leading them — not cheap shots in the press,” Cantwell said. Zinke’s comments “betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of federal civil service,” she added. “They are nonpolitical employees charged with implementing and enforcing laws passed by Congress.”

Other groups — the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Public Lands Foundation and Association of Retired Fish and Wildlife Service Employees — also took issue with the remarks. “Saying that over 20,000 employees in his department are not loyal to the flag is simply ludicrous, and deeply insulting,” the groups said in a joint statement. They called on the secretary to apologize.

In an unrelated missive to Interior staff, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt took the unusual step of sharing the names of executives who were dismissed after an inspector general report determined that they had engaged in poor behavior.

“I am troubled that there is not a universal sense in … Interior that those few employees who have failed to uphold … standards are appropriately being held accountable,” Bernhardt wrote in a memo Monday. “Please be assured, that I am committed to ensuring that leaders at all levels of the department are, themselves, ensuring that legally sound, measured  and decisive action is being taken.”

He went on to name a BLM supervisor and National Park Service ranger who were fired for “misuse of his position for personal gain” in the first case, and “misuse of government equipment” in the second.

“I share these examples because you need to know that your leadership is listening,” Bernhardt wrote. “We will hold people accountable when we are informed that they have failed in their duties and obligations.”

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