The reassignment of dozens of senior career Interior Department (DOI) officials last year may have violated federal law, a damning internal report released Wednesday found. But investigators with the DOI Inspector General’s office said they were unable to say definitively because the agency failed to properly document their reasons for ousting the employees.
“Absent documentation, we could not independently determine whether or not the ERB complied with the Federal legal requirements,” said the report, referring to a board of made up of Trump administration appointees at the agency.
The report did determine, however, that the board did not properly consider the officials’ qualifications, time in office, or other valid criteria when selecting them to be forced out of their jobs.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has for several months been under fire for the reassignments, which Democrats say may have discriminated against department employees based on their political ideology or their race. Though the IG report does not mention it, a review by TPM found that a full third of those reassigned are Native American — a potential violation of both federal anti-discrimination laws and the agency’s own Indian Preference rules.
In the report, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall describes a haphazard process used to select senior executive service (SES) officials for reassignment.
“The Executive Resources Board did not gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments, nor did it effectively communicate with the SES members or with most managers affected by the reassignments,” Kendall said.
The report also noted that, according to government guidelines, the board is supposed to be made up of a mix of non-partisan career officials and political appointees. But under Zinke, its voting membership is comprised solely of Trump administration picks.
“One ERB member told us that the ERB members only discussed senior executives who they knew or had experience with and that there was not much thought or discussion given to reassigning senior executives they did not know,” the report continues. “When we asked the ERB members who in the Department leadership ordered the reassignment of senior executives, no one could provide an answer.”
As a result of this chaotic process and the lack of information about the moves, the report continues, more than half of the impacted officials “questioned whether these reassignments were political or punitive, based on a prior conflict with DOI leadership, or on the senior executive’s nearness to retirement. Many executives speculated that multiple reasons applied or believed their reassignment may have been related to their prior work assignments, including climate change, energy, or conservation.”
The most high profile of the ousted officials, climate scientist Joel Clement, said in a statement to TPM that he is “stunned by the level of incompetence that this report describes.”
“It’s remarkable that the political staff at Interior would be so blithe, thoughtless, and careless during a time of intense scrutiny,” he said. “It begs the question, what did they have to hide?”
The Interior Department did not respond to TPM’s inquiry about the IG’s findings, but said in a statement to The Hill that “the ERB has the lawful authority to reassign SES Members and has done so here,” adding that the board has “already adopted and is implementing best practices and has moved aggressively to better communicate its vision and plan going forward.”
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