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Interior Department whistleblower resigns; bipartisan former appointees object to Zinke’s statements

On July 19, former top climate policy official at the Department of Interior Joel Clement, filed a complaint and a whistleblower disclosure form. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

An Interior Department executive-turned-whistleblower who said the Trump administration retaliated against him for publicly disclosing how climate change affects Alaska Native communities resigned Wednesday.

In a separate criticism of Interior’s leadership, a group of former department officials, from Republican and Democratic administrations, objected to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s characterization of department employees as not loyal.

Joel Clement, a scientist and policy expert, was removed from his job by Zinke shortly after the disclosure and reassigned to an accounting position for which he has no experience. Clement was among dozens of Senior Executive Service personnel who were quickly, and perhaps unlawfully, reassigned in June, but he was the only person who spoke out.

Interior’s inspector general is probing the reassignments to determine whether the process was legal. By law, executives are to be given ample notice of a job switch. Many of those reassigned say they were given no notice, according to attorneys who are representing some of the employees. The inspector general said Clement is on the list of employees being contacted, though Clement and his lawyer say that hasn’t happened in the more than two months since the evaluation launched.

Clement is now the second reassigned Interior employee known to resign. He said he mulled over resigning for months before submitting a letter to Greg Gould, director of natural resources revenue, late Wednesday morning.

Keeping a job supervising accountants when they were far more experienced was “cheating the taxpayers,” Clement said. He was sent to training clinics and was treated well by his new colleagues, but, “I would feel just guilty stringing them along . . . as they tried to turn me into an audit specialist.”

Rather than accept a job and be “tucked in a corner,” Clement vowed to work instead toward Zinke’s ouster.

“Keeping my voice is more important than keeping my job,” he said. “I have not found another job yet. I have vast contacts inside the agency and outside. I do believe I can be a strong voice to resisting what the Zinke team is doing.”

Clement said workers at Interior are outraged by Zinke’s comment in a speech slightly more than a week ago that they are disloyal. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” Zinke said, adding that policy-decision positions should be shipped from Washington to Western cities, such as Denver.

“Everyone is pissed here about his comments about loyalty. It’s the buzz in the building. You hear snide remarks all day long at how ludicrous that was. They clearly have lost respect for the leadership of that organization,” Clement said.

Read Joel Clement’s resignation letter

Zinke is on a mission to cut 4,000 jobs at Interior in accordance with President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget. In a Senate committee hearing, Zinke said that attrition and reassignments would be used as tools toward that goal and that layoffs are possible if they don’t work.

Clement said the disloyalty comment “was enough for people to feel the pressure and a chill.”

In his resignation letter, Clement was defiant, accusing Zinke and Trump of poor leadership.

“The investigations into my whistleblower complaints are ongoing and I hope to prevail.

“Retaliating against civil servants for raising health and safety concerns is unlawful, but there are many items to add to your resume of failure,” he said, listing several.

In a separate letter, former top Interior executives under Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama criticized Zinke for his comments about loyalty at Interior.

Read the letter to Zinke from former Interior officials from Republican and Democratic administrations

“As former Interior political appointees who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, we strongly disagree,” the writers said. “The department’s career employees swear to defend the Constitution; they do not swear personal allegiance to individual secretaries or to anyone else.”

They said the comment was remindful of a time “when the infamous Boss Tweed doled out jobs in New York City government to his friends in Tammany Hall.”

“These employees are dedicated to public service and to advancing the public good, and many work for salaries considerably lower than they could earn in the private sector,” the letter said. “In our experience, these employees fully grasp that elections have consequences, and that new administrations, priorities and policies may shift,” but they base their work on policies that is “wise, scientifically sound and legally defensible.”

The letter was signed by a dozen former executives, including Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Clinton; Michael Brennan, executive assistant to the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under George H.W. Bush; Nathaniel Reed, Fish and Wildlife head under Nixon and Ford; and Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service under Obama.