Menendez hits Zinke: ‘We're going to have increasingly a lily-white Department of the Interior’

Menendez hits Zinke: ‘We're going to have increasingly a lily-white Department of the Interior’
© Greg Nash

A Democratic senator says the Interior Department is headed for a "lily-white" future under Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog MORE.

New Jersey Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezVOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage Bottom line Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads MORE (D) said in an interview with CNN that Zinke is ignoring racial diversity within his agency after the network reported that the Interior secretary made several comments to the effect of "diversity isn't important," or "I don't care about diversity," to other employees.

"The problem is that Zinke is clearly on a path in which we're going to have increasingly a lily-white Department of the Interior," Menendez told CNN.

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CNN also reported that Zinke's alleged comments attacking efforts to ensure a diverse workplace at the Interior Department hurt and angered staffers who became aware of the remarks.

The New Jersey Democrat, himself born to Cuban immigrants, espoused the benefits of searching for candidates from a wide range of backgrounds for the federal government.

"We can find some of the best people in the nation from diverse communities, whether that diversity is ethnically, racially or otherwise," Menendez added.

An Interior Department spokeswoman fought back against reports of Zinke's remarks, saying in a statement to CNN that "the anonymous claims made against the secretary are untrue."

"As a woman who has worked for him for a number of years in senior positions, I say without a doubt this claim is untrue, and I am hopeful that they are a result of a misunderstanding and not a deliberate mistruth," spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement.

Reports of Zinke's comments about diversity spurred reactions from other Latino lawmakers as well, including Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenTechNet hires Hispanic communications director Bottom line Women are refusing to take the backseat in politics, especially Latinas MORE (Fla.).

"Unlike @SecretaryZinke, I celebrate diversity," she tweeted Monday. "#SoFla is proof that a melting pot can create incredible results"