Ranks of Nonpolitical, Professional Managers Slashed; Women and Minorities Are Hit Hardest
When the Department of the Interior set out to purge 50 agency employees in what was disguised as career reassignments back in June, it targeted a special group of highly skilled, nonpolitical senior management from the executive branch. We’re now learning that women and minorities were hit the hardest, according to a partial list of confirmed reassignments put together by current and former agency employees.
Of 19 people on the list assembled to date, at least 14 are women and minorities. Women account for nine of the 19, and one of the nine is a Native American; the rest presumably are white women. Five of the 10 men are minorities. That would leave at most five white men who were reassigned. However, the race of two of the five can’t be confirmed. So that could mean just three out of 19 are white men, said Katherine Atkinson, a Partner at Wilkenfeld, Herendeen & Atkinson, who is representing Joel Clement in his complaint against the department that he filed with the Office of Special Counsel. Clement, a former director of the Office of Policy Analysis and the agency’s top climate policy official became a whistleblower when he was moved from his position to the accounting department in July in the reassignment.*
Outside of Secretary Ryan Zinke and friends, no one has that full official list. While it’s possible that the majority of the rest of the 30 or so senior employees on the agency hit list are white men, it’s most unlikely.
“The thing that struck me that’s a shame, of the minority men on the list, half are Native American,” Atkinson said. “The agency is supposed to be looking out for Native Americans—that’s one of its missions. But they moved them out.”
Atkinson also noted that the agency went about this in a very targeted way. “Rather than doing broad strokes, it was looking at people specifically, who spoke out on climate change—specific targets,” she said.
It’s important to note that all of the 50 or so employees on this Interior hit list were members of the Senior Executive Service, a branch of permanent managers who run federal programs regardless of incoming and outgoing administrations. This specific body was established by Congress to have political independence and freedom from retaliation for whistleblowing. It sits atop the civil service in the executive branch and serves as a link between the political appointees of the administration and the rest of the civil servants.
Not that Congress’s intent deterred Zinke. The secretary admitted during testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee that he planned to use reassignments to reduce staff—after he ordered the reassignments. While senior executives are expected to be somewhat mobile, they aren’t expected to go from being scientists to accountants. Reassignments must make sense. The agency’s ham-fisted removal of more than one-fifth of its SES employees has brought itself much scrutiny.
In August, a group of legal scholars led by Joshua A. Geltzer, executive director and visiting professor of law at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection for Georgetown University Law Center, sent a letter to the Office of Special Counsel, bolstering Clement’s legal claim that the agency’s reassignment of him to the accounting office was arbitrary, outside of his expertise and possibly retaliatory.
A group of eight Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked the Office of the Inspector General to also look into the mass involuntary reassignments of the senior executives.
The Interior Department is not expected to release its official list of the employees it reassigned in June, but with investigations by the Office of Special Counsel, and its own Inspector General now, that list likely will surface at some point.
There had been talk recently that the agency was gearing up to do another round of mass reassignments, but it may have scuttled those plans due to the public blowback.
Featured Photo: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
*The information in this paragrpah was updated on Sept. 20.