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The Energy 202: Trump team's skimpy record-keeping raises flags with Interior watchdog

with Paulina Firozi


Last year, the Interior Department abruptly transferred dozens of senior employees without prior warning, just as President Trump's new political appointees were settling in there.

Was it legal? 

The department's internal watchdogs this week came to a conclusion: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In a new report, the office of Interior's inspector general said that it cannot determine whether Interior chief Ryan Zinke's unusual and controversial reassignment of 27 members — about 12 percent — of workers in the department's Senior Executive Service ran afoul of federal law. 

That's because top agency officials failed to document how they made their decisions. The Washington Post obtained and reported the findings Wednesday before investigators published it later that day.

Individual reassignments are common for members of the SES, a corps of top career and politically appointed federal employees who serve just below top presidential appointees. But the mass transfer between June and October of last year — which forced some senior workers to move across the country — caught longtime employees and some members of Congress off-guard, especially given the scarcity of confirmed political appointees in the department at the time. 

In the new report, Interior's Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall found that the members of a board set up to make the transfer decisions in May did not follow the correct protocol for record-keeping. The Executive Resources Board, Kendall’s report found, “did not document its plan or the reasons it used when selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments.”

Without documentation including “meeting minutes, notes, voting or decision records,” investigators were not able to determine whether the board’s decisions complied with federal law to protect employees from sudden transfers. Interviews with those making personnel decisions did not yield an explanation. “When we asked the ERB members who in the Department leadership ordered the reassignment of senior executives, no one could provide an answer,” the report read.

In a statement, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said the inspector general report validated the department’s personnel decisions. “Obviously, the evaluation confirmed the Department’s long-held view that the ERB has the lawful authority to reassign SES Members and has done so here,” she wrote.

But at least one member of the SES who was reassigned in Zinke’s mass transfer held up internal investigators’ findings as an example of ineptitude at Trump’s Interior Department.

“I am stunned by the level of incompetence that this report describes; there were so few records kept that the inspector general can’t even make a determination of the legality of the reassignment actions,” said Joel Clement, an Interior Department executive-turned-whistleblower who resigned in October. “It’s remarkable that the political staff at Interior would be so blithe, thoughtless and careless during a time of intense scrutiny. It begs the question, what did they have to hide?”

In a March memorandum, David Bernhardt, Zinke’s top deputy, conceded to Kendall after reviewing her report that although they believe the personnel decisions were lawful, “the Secretary and I concluded that the ERB could benefit from incorporating best practices and improving its business process.”

It is not the first time that the Trump team’s record-keeping has raised flags from the inspector general’s office. In November, the IG issued another alert notifying department officials that its audit of Zinke’s travel practices had been hampered by “absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips.”

In this case, Zinke’s attitude toward longtime Interior Department employees drew special scrutiny after the secretary said that nearly a third of his staff is disloyal to Trump in a speech to a federal advisory board dominated by oil and gas industry executives. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” the secretary said, according to participants.

Clement was removed from his job as director of policy analysis, working on the effects of climate change on Alaska Native communities, and reassigned to a revenue accounting position for which he said he had no experience.

In a July op-ed in The Post, Clement said he believed he was reassigned because he spoke out about human-caused global warming, which Trump and many members of his administration have dismissed as untrue despite major scientific consensus on the subject.

“Behind this whole 'Keystone Cop' display of incompetence,” Clement said in an interview Wednesday, “there’s this determination to purge the agency of anyone who doesn’t support the secretary’s flag.” In total, 12 reassigned Interior Department employees interviewed by the inspector general’s office, including Clement, said they believed they were transferred because of prior work on climate, conservation, energy and other issues.

Another transferred SES employee at the agency, who declined to be named for fear of further reprisal, said the “investigation is vindicating for my colleagues and me. In my opinion it confirms we were the victims of ego and personal vendettas.”

Democrats seized on the report as confirmation that the Trump administration sought to “punish” career staffers at the agency.

“This report backs up my concern that Interior Department leaders identified employees for reassignment as a way to punish career staff who were working on issues that contradicted the administration’s anti-science agenda, particularly its climate denial campaign,” said Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department.

Democrats also point out that Republicans in Congress have not been as keen to call the transfers into question. “I have repeatedly asked Chairman [Trey] Gowdy to join me in investigating the reassignment of career employees at the Department of the Interior, but he has refused to request a single document, and he has even blocked the Committee from debating and voting on a subpoena,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement. Rep. Gowdy (R-S.C.) leads the oversight panel.

“Thank goodness for the Inspector General,” Cummings added.

The IG's office made recommendations to improve record-keeping in its report. It now wants leaders to estimate the cost of all geographic transfers and writing out a plan for reassigning senior personnel “to ensure accountability.” Indeed, the Interior Department carried out its own changes by drafting a formal charter for the ERB and restructuring the board to include a mix of career and non-career employees. Previously, all six members of the board were political appointees.

The probe began at the request of Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), that committee’s ranking Democrat, as well as Udall.

“We are concerned that mismanagement of this program could lead to premature retirements, lower morale within the federal workforce, higher costs for the Department, and discourage talented professionals from entering the SES,” Cantwell and other congressional Democrats wrote last month in asking another investigative bureau, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, to look into the reassignment issue.


— More Pruitt, less EPA: When he took over the agency, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt made a suggestion to redesign the EPA’s “challenge coin,” a souvenir medallion with military roots, the New York Times reports. His idea? He wanted the coin bigger, and he wanted the EPA's long-standing "daisy" seal gone.

Pruitt "instead wanted the coin to feature some combination of symbols more reflective of himself and the Trump administration. Among the possibilities: a buffalo, to evoke Mr. Pruitt’s native Oklahoma, and a Bible verse to reflect his faith,” the Times reports. “Mr. Pruitt also requested that the agency order other items — including leather-bound notebooks, fountain pens and stationery — from which he wanted to omit the E.P.A. seal and upon which he wanted to feature his name prominently … Ultimately, the items retained a small version of the seal.”

One of Pruitt's issues with the EPA logo is that it "looked like a marijuana leaf," according to the Times. Pruitt has former EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch, mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, to blame for the longevity of that design. As New York magazine explains, Gorsuch rejected a 1970s redesign of the EPA seal after taking office in 1981. "I don’t like the stationery — I want my daisy back” is how she reportedly put it.

— The man behind Pruitt's costly security once chased mobsters: Pasquale Perrotta, the former Secret Service agent who is behind some of Pruitt’s controversial security decisions, says he is “misunderstood by most" and that he previously investigated loan sharks and mobsters, Bloomberg News reports. "Perrotta got the Environmental Protection Agency job protecting Pruitt last year, after the previous lead agent questioned some security decisions and was reassigned, according to a person familiar with the change who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters. But Perrotta, who has worked for the agency for 14 years, has had no such qualms.”

Here are more details from the latest Pruitt headlines: 

  • Pruitt got a friendly reception from conservative members of the Heritage Foundation, where he “talked about a variety of policy objectives. He also thanked participants for supporting him during a period of turbulence stemming from his ethical missteps,” E&E News reports.
  • There’s at least one Republican calling for more information on Pruitt’s recent actions: Gowdy asked for more answers from the EPA about Pruitt's “first-class travels, and said his committee also plans to evaluate the $50-a-night rental Pruitt had with a lobbyist,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report.
  • Senate Democrats continued their calls Wednesday for Pruitt to resign or be fired. Sen. Udall said Pruitt has “misused taxpayer dollars while enhancing his own personal perks" and "subverted scientific processes in a manner we have never seen,” according to the Associated Press. Democrats also plan to introduce a “sense of the Senate” resolution calling for Pruitt’s removal soon.
  • Agency employees are joining the push to remove Pruitt: The American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the agency’s biggest union representing 8,000 of the department’s 14,000 employees, signed onto the boot Pruitt campaign, Bloomberg News reports.
  • Meanwhile, Senate Democrats want to delay a confirmation vote for Trump’s pick for the EPA’s No.2 spot, saying that the nomination would require further scrutiny in case the position would end up replacing Pruitt. “The circumstances regarding Mr. Wheeler have changed since we had our nomination hearing and vote with the cloud over Administrator Pruitt,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said on Wednesday, according to the Hill. The confirmation vote is slated for Thursday.

— “These comments are particularly troubling:” A group of 31 Democrats led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) wrote the letter to Zinke following a CNN report that Zinke told department staff that “diversity isn’t important.” “As a public official, you have the responsibility to ensure that both your agency and the public lands it administers are welcoming and inclusive to all people," the letter reads.

— Elsewhere on Capitol Hill: Zinke told lawmakers Wednesday he is set to scale back the administration’s proposed offshore drilling plan after widespread opposition. “States matter, local voices matter, you matter, and governors matter,” Zinke told members of the House Appropriations Committee, per the Washington Examiner. “I think I know exactly where everyone sits on both coasts. We are shaping our plan. This is not a rule. This is a plan.”

Meanwhile, Zinke also criticized the scrutiny of his spending while in office as “false, misleading and blatantly untruthful.” His remarks come as the department’s inspector general is expected to soon release a report on his travel arrangements and attendance at political events during official trips. “Every time I travel it is approved by legal folks and career ethics [officials],” Zinke said. “I understand we live in a political environment, but in every situation I follow procedures.”

— HUD grants funds for Puerto Rico: The Department of Housing and Urban Development will grant Puerto Rico about $18.5 billion for repairs needed after Hurricane Maria. The U.S. territory will receive $10.2 billion for repairs from the storm and another $8.3 billion to protect from future disasters, the agency said Tuesday.  

— Trump considers Depression-era program to bail out farmers caught in Chinese trade war: "Trump’s aides are looking at ways to use the Commodity Credit Corporation, a division of the Agriculture Department that was created in 1933 to offer a financial backstop for farmers," The Post's Damian Paletta reports. "But while the White House is considering the idea as a way to protect farmers if China slaps tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, some GOP lawmakers" — including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (Kan.) — "have told the administration that the approach will not work." 

— Flint fiasco: Dozens of residents rallied at the Michigan state capitol in Lansing on Wednesday to protest the decision to stop providing free bottled water. Residents carried plastic water bottles and signs that read: “You did it. You fix it!,” CNN reports. Last week, a senior adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said in a statement: “Bottled water may be ending, but the state's commitment to the residents of Flint remains strong.”


— An environmental group is launching its own satellite: The Environmental Defense Fund announced Wednesday it plans to launch an eye-in-the-sky to measure the emissions of methane, a strong but short-lived greenhouse gas, from oil and natural gas operations. The group said it is on its way to raising about $40 million and has reached out to aerospace veteran Tom Ingersoll and others in the commercial space business to “create a device that will be able to measure methane emissions on a 125-mile wide swath with pixel resolution of less than five-eighths of a mile,” The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. EDF has tapped into the work of Harvard researchers to fine tune sensors. 

— Too fast to save: Seas are rising too quickly to save the Mississippi River’s threatened lands, even as the state of Louisiana works to redirect the river and rebuild the wetlands, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances. “The problem is that factors that drive wetland loss are simply more powerful — the sinking of the land (subsidence), the intrusion of saltwater as seas rise, the dissolution of wetlands that have been cut into canals to support oil and gas pipes, and more,” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. “And on top of that, sea level rise is now occurring much faster than it did when the Bayou Lafourche land was built.”

— The Atlantic’s circulation hasn’t been this sluggish in 1,000 years: The Atlantic Ocean circulation that carries warmth north has slowed down because of climate change, Mooney reports. The circulation strength has dropped 15 percent to a “new record low” since the middle of the 20th century. This is “something that climate models have predicted for a long time, but we weren’t sure it was really happening. I think it is happening,” one of the study’s authors, Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told Mooney. This is bad news because this conveyor belt of ocean heat keep make Western Europe's weather temperate. 

— Meanwhile, over the oceans' surface: Heat waves over the world’s oceans are increasing in frequency. According to a new study, there has been a 54 percent spike in the number of days in which oceans have experienced heat waves since 1925, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. This increase has occurred as more and more heat is being stored in the oceans as a result of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And the study warned that “we can expect further increases in marine heat wave days under continued global warming.”


— Shell sets out strategy for shift from fossil fuels: Despite acknowledging that by 2050 it may be "impossible to buy an internal combustion engine anywhere in the world," as the Financial Times put it, Royal Dutch Shell sees little risk in being left with “stranded assets” of obsolete oil and gas reserves. "Shell said it was confident that its reserves would remain competitive" through 2030, according to FT. Shell's report comes a week after the environmental group Friends of the Earth threatened Shell with legal action over its contributions to global warming.

— Oil and gas companies in California violated regulations nearly 400 times over the past three years: According to records collected by the Center for Biological Diversity, the firms' violations included failing and missing required tests on well strength. “The group said the problems could pose a serious threat to the environment if aging infrastructure fails and spills oil on beaches near major cities,” the Associated Press reports.



  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy on the department’s 2019 budget.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold an oversight hearing titled “The Benefits of the Navajo Generating Station to Local Economies.”

— Washed ashore: A 33-foot sperm whale that was found dead off the coast of Spain had 64 pounds, or 29 kilograms, of garbage in its digestive system, The Post’s Kristine Phillips reports. “The amount of human trash in its system had become so enormous that the whale was unable to expel the garbage.”