Interior secretary questioned importance of diversity: report

Interior secretary questioned importance of diversity: report
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE downplayed the importance of diversity in the workforce and at his department on multiple occasions, CNN reported Monday.

Zinke made a number of off-the-cuff remarks that insinuated he did not prioritize diversity within the Interior Department, multiple senior administration sources told the network.

The officials said that the secretary instead said multiple times that he valued finding the best people and most qualified applicants, regardless of their cultural or racial backgrounds.

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Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift denied that Zinke ever made the comments about diversity and denied the claims in the report.

"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," Swift said in a statement.

Swift pointed to number of hires and appointments within the department as proof that Zinke valued employees with diverse backgrounds, including his appointment of Brenda Burman, the first woman to lead the Bureau of Reclamation, and Tara Mac Lean Sweeney, the first female Alaska Native to serve as assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

"The Secretary's commitment to inclusion, opportunity, and diversity was recently recognized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation when he was awarded their Leader in Democracy award, and he is regularly asked to speak at their events," Swift said.

Interior in February commemorated Black History month with an event in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where Deputy Assistant Secretary Aurelia Skipwith spoke. Zinke shared the event on Twitter.

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The Interior Department has long faced criticism for lacking diversity in its ranks. 

Office of Personnel Management data from 2014 found that nearly 74 percent of the Interior Department was white, while less than 7 percent identified as either black or Hispanic. In comparison, the report found that about 65 percent of employees identified as white across the federal government.

Results of the Interior's 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, meanwhile, found that only 58 percent of employees agreed the department's "policies and programs promote diversity in the workplace."

Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenEx-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company Republican Salazar seeks rematch with Shalala in key Miami House district MORE (R-Fla.) in a tweet on Monday invited Zinke to visit South Florida, "where diversity is celebrated every day."

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

The report follows a November lawsuit from former Interior employee Joel Clement, who sued the department after it failed to provide him with a number of Freedom of Information Act requests pertaining to his job reassignment within the department. Clement was one of 33 senior executive staffers reassigned without warning last June to new positions within the Interior Department. He later quit.

Clement's lawyer, Katie Atkinson, told CNN that she believes at least 15 of the 33 people reassigned were minorities.