The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zinke says his workers are disloyal. They say his personnel moves break the law.

Two murals on the walls outside the Bureau of Land Management at the Interior Department in Washington. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blasted many within his department for being disloyal to the Trump administration’s agenda this week, the agency’s inspector general’s office continued a probe into whether officials acted inappropriately when they abruptly reassigned dozens of senior workers.

Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall is working “to determine if the U.S. Department of the Interior followed appropriate guidelines and best practices in the reassignment of Senior Executive Service employees,” according to spokeswoman Gillian Carroll.

The reassigned workers include Joel Clement, a scientist and policy expert who was removed from his job as director of policy analysis and reassigned to a revenue accounting position for which he has no experience. Clement became a whistleblower when he publicly complained about his switch from his longtime role, in which he assessed climate impact on Alaska Native communities.

Zinke’s comments about disloyalty, coupled with the inquiry into the possible wrongful dismissal of career workers, are indications of the deep divide between Interior’s leadership and staff.

The Trump administration’s goal to allow more coal mining, drilling and logging on public lands clashes with that of scientists and others at the agency who study the impact of fossil fuels and deforestation on global warming. The mission of other offices within Interior is to ensure that taxpayers get a fair share of royalties from mineral excavation and that corporations pay the cost of restoring land disrupted during mining, drilling and logging operations.

During a speech Monday to oil and gas executives, Zinke vowed to shift policymaking decisions in the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation away from Washington and to Western states. The BLM controls 245 million acres on the surface — a tenth of all the land in the United States — as well as 700 million acres of the nation’s mineral-rich underground.

Zinke is also seeking to reduce staffing by up to 4,000 workers as a cost-cutting measure in line with the president’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget. In a Senate hearing in June, he said reassignment is one of the tools he’ll use to meet budgetary goals. Interior declined to respond when asked if another round of reassignments is imminent — a rumor making its way through the department.

After a four-month review of federal lands and waters, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says President Trump should modify 10 national monuments. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears/The Washington Post)

Clement said Interior officials never discussed his reassignment with him before he received a notice in June.

“He believes . . . that the administration targeted him because he was speaking out about the danger [of climate change] to Alaska Native Communities,” said attorney Katherine Atkinson, who is representing Clement. “As a result, they labeled him as a climate guy.”

Beyond how the reassignments were carried out — which Atkinson said violated the U.S. Code — “it’s a waste of government money to just arbitrarily move people around in the hopes that they will quit,” she said.

Senior Executive Service members are appointed by the heads of agencies based on their job qualifications and serve at their pleasure. They can be reassigned at any time, but first certain steps must be taken, according to the rules.

A sub-chapter of the code says that “a career appointee may be reassigned to any senior executive service position only if the career appointee receives written notice of the reassignment at least 15 days before the effective date of such reassignment.”

The code continues: a career appointee “may not be reassigned . . . outside the career appointee’s commuting area” unless the agency consults with the worker, explains the reason for the move and engages the worker on his or her preferences for the next job.

In the absence of a face-to-face meeting or, presumably, a telephone call, the individual should receive a written notice of the reassignment “with a statement of the reasons for the reassignment, at least 60 days before the effective date of the reassignment.”

Clement and several other career appointees say none of that happened. The other reassigned employees asked for anonymity because of fears of retaliation.

One reassigned executive who declined to be named said she found out when one of her superiors was handed a blue envelope containing six names, including hers. “Within an hour I got an official letter giving me a week to accept” her new assignment, she said.

Another staffer called the news a “shock to the system” that would require a move to Washington from a post hundreds of miles away.

“I think under any other administration there would have been a conversation about your value to the organization and why they’re moving you where they’re moving you,” the staffer said Tuesday.

The executive, who has worked under three administrations, said the current one is more aggressive about targeting employees who fall out of favor for whatever reason. “They will come after you,” the individual said.

But the question to be resolved is whether Interior broke the rules. “If the criteria expressed in the U.S. Code is not followed, then the reassignment would be unlawful,” Carroll said.

She could not say when the probe will be finished since “every evaluation or investigation or audit is different.”