Senior Democrats are demanding that Congress’s investigative arm probe whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s mass reassignment of senior career civil servants last summer violated federal anti-discrimination laws.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the Government Accountability Office, obtained early by TPM, a group of Senate and House Democrats say they’re concerned that the controversial reassignments — already the subject of multiple investigations — are disproportionately affecting employees who “belong to a protected class.”
It’s illegal to make federal personnel decisions based on race, gender, age, religion, or disability.
The congressional letter comes days after the attorney representing some of the targeted employees in the Senior Executive Service (SES), the top rank of non-political federal employees, claimed that nearly half of those reassigned were minorities.
It also comes on the heels of several episodes that have raised questions about Zinke’s commitment to diversity and racial sensitivity, as well as a review by TPM of the DOI’s website that found that pages dedicated on diversity training and African-American resources have been cut back or removed entirely.
“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,” the eight top Democrats on the House and Senate’s committees that oversee federal worker issues wrote. “We are concerned about reports of agencies reassigning SES staff in a manner that is inconsistent with the purposes of the SES program, and which will impair the ability of agencies to implement programs in accordance with laws and Congressional intent.”
The letter is signed by Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), and Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). It’s a follow-up to the lawmakers’ demand last summer for a probe into whether the reshuffling in the Department was “based on political considerations.”
The saga began last July, when Zinke moved to reassign dozens of senior career officials, telling many of them to either accept a new placement on the other side of the country or in a role unrelated to their background, or leave the agency. Many of those pushed out of their prior jobs are now challenging the move, and some are speaking out publicly to accuse Zinke of targeting them for political reasons.
The most prominent of the bunch is Joel Clement, the agency’s top climate change official, who Zinke moved to the office that collects royalties from oil, gas and mining companies. Clement told TPM that he believes he was targeted because of his work on both climate change and with Native American communities.
“Some of the reassignments were probably fair enough, but doing dozens at once is eyebrow-raising,” said Clement. “I believe some were discrimination, and some were retaliation.”
Under laws dating back to the late 1800s, it’s illegal to make decisions about hiring, firing, promoting or demoting federal workers based on political affiliations or patronage. Additionally, a few weeks before the moves were announced, Zinke said he wanted to reduce the Department’s workforce by thousands of people, raising concerns that the goal of the reassignments was to pressure career staffers to resign.
The GAO, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, and the Office of Special Counsel have all for months been investigating the motive for Zinke moving Clement and his colleagues.
Clement’s attorney Katie Atkinson told CNN earlier this week that more than 40 percent of the people who were reassigned without warning are people of color. Atkinson was traveling and unable to respond immediately to TPM inquiry about the source of her numbers. But the allegation was alarming enough that Democrats now want some of the investigating bodies to take a closer look at whether members of a legally protected class —such as racial minorities — were singled out in the purge.
“We need to make sure the agencies are being run in a professional way, and targeting people for their political beliefs, or perceived political beliefs, attacking the scientists and experts whose work conflicts with some of the beliefs that the Trump administration has, and disproportionately going after racial minorities is far from that,” a Senate Democratic aide told TPM, speaking on background due to the sensitivity of the oversight work.
Adding to Democrats’ concern are new reports that Zinke has repeatedly said to DOI officials “diversity isn’t important” and “I don’t care about diversity.”
Those alleged comments have made some on Capitol Hill take a fresh look at a cryptic remark the Secretary made last September, when he said, “’I’ve got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.’”
“The Department of the Interior is 70 percent white and 30 percent people of color,” the Senate Democratic aide said. “In light of this, I think it’s fair to ask Secretary Zinke which 30 percent are you talking about?”
The Department of the Interior did not respond to TPM’s question as to whether the 30 percent referenced by Zinke was referring to the Department’s people of color.
Zinke’s attitude toward racial minorities came under additional scrutiny, when, at a recent budget hearing on Capitol Hill, he responded “Oh, konnichiwa” to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI), when the lawmaker asked about his commitment to funding monuments to commemorate WWII Japanese-American internment camps. Hanabusa, who is Japanese-American, later noted that the remark was an example of “racial stereotyping,” and that no other member of the committee “was greeted in their ancestral language” by Zinke.
The Secretary did not apologize, and instead asked, “How could ever saying ‘Good morning’ be bad?”
The Department of the Interior’s website dedicated to training resources on diversity and civil rights also appears to have been taken down. An archived version of the site accessed via the Internet Archive shows that as of late 2016, the site had a long list of recommended subjects for training, including Disability Accommodations, Employment Law, and Recruiting for Diversity. The agency’s page for African American Resources, meanwhile, included in 2016 a list of 20 organizations and sources of information on black history, culture, literature and advocacy groups like the NAACP. The page now consists of a large picture of Zinke in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and a link to the page of a single group — Blacks in Government.
The Interior Department did not respond to TPM’s inquiry as to why the pages were cut back and removed.
Democrats on Capitol Hill say all these data points have convinced them to focus a significant piece their oversight work in the months to come on the Interior Department’s treatment of employees of color.
“You start to get a pattern of an entitled white guy who has no time for diversity and actually scoffs at it,” the aide told TPM.
An Interior Department spokesman didn’t immediately respond to that charge.
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