Interior watchdog unable to determine if staff reassignments comply with law

Interior watchdog unable to determine if staff reassignments comply with law
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The Interior Department's watchdog was unable to determine if a series of senior staff reassignments that took place last year complied with federal law due to poor departmental record-keeping.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) announced Wednesday that it could not “independently determine” whether the Executive Resources Board (ERB), which was tasked with making the reassignment of 27 Senior Executive Service (SES) employees, followed the necessary federal legal requirements.

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Additionally, the IG found that the ERB did not document the process it used to determine who to reassign and the reasoning behind it.

“We found that the ERB did not document its plan for selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it consistently apply the reasons it stated it used to select senior executives for reassignment. We also found that the ERB 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,” the IG report reads.

The report said that, as a result, many of the employees reasonably questioned whether their new posts were political in nature.

Last year Interior reassigned 27 of approximately 227 members of the SES between June 15 and Oct. 29. A number of those employees have questioned whether their reassignments were tied to the nature of their job, a number of which included studying climate science.

Joel Clement was the first Interior employee to blow the whistle on the reassignments, filing a complaint in July. For the majority of the time that Clement was at Interior, he studied the impact of rising sea levels on Native American tribes in Alaska. Until July, he was the director of the Office of Policy Analysis. Then he was reassigned without notice to be a senior adviser at the department's Office of Natural Resources Revenue — a position he labels an accounting job. Clement officially resigned in October.

“I am stunned by the level of incompetence that this report describes; there were so few records kept that the Inspector General can’t even make a determination of the legality of the reassignment actions,” Clement said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s remarkable that the political staff at Interior would be so blithe, thoughtless, and careless during a time of intense scrutiny. It begs the question, what did they have to hide?

Clement said that at the very least the report indicated poor management style at the Interior Department, but at the most highlighted the extent to which politics had seeped into the department.

He said he is now hoping Congress will respond to the report’s findings and seek more information from Interior. He called for Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE to step down.

“In the meantime, Secretary Zinke, the only Senate-confirmed employee at Interior when these reassignments took place, should resign,” Clement said.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the findings showed the reassignments were “not defensible.”

“This goes beyond mere incompetence. It’s absolutely unacceptable for political appointees to take this action without leaving a public record or any attempt to explain why dedicated public servants are being treated this way,” Rosenberg said in a statement.

The IG report recommended that going forward Interior should document all plans for reassignments of senior executives “to ensure accountability for transparent, economical, and efficient Government.” Additional suggestions included alerting employees before reassignments are announced and estimating what the costs would be for geographic moves.

A spokesperson for the Interior said they were happy to see the report's findings proved that the ERB had the authority to determine the reassignments, adding that the department "appreciates" the IG's recommendations.

"Obviously, the evaluation confirmed the Department's long-held view that the ERB has the lawful authority to reassign SES Members and has done so here. Additionally, the Department appreciates the IG making recommendations on the board's effectiveness. As outlined by the Deputy Secretary in his response to the IG, the ERB has already adopted and is implementing best practices and has moved aggressively to better communicate its vision and plan going forward," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Previously the Interior Department called the reassignments necessary.

"The purpose of the Senior Executive Service is to ensure that the executive management of the government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies, and goals of the Nation and otherwise is of the highest quality. Senior executives are the highest paid employees in the federal government and signed up for the SES knowing that they could be called upon to work in different positions at any time," an Interior spokesperson said in an earlier statement.

Interior has faced heavy criticism for the stream of reassignments, leading the IG office to open up the investigation.

A CNN report found that nearly half of employees reassigned were also persons of color.

At the end of March CNN reported that Zinke had told colleagues on a number of occasions that diversity at the department was not important. Clement’s lawyer has maintained that a majority of the SES staffers reassigned were minorities. Clement is white.

That same week seven Democratic senators formally requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into the reassignments.

“Congress created the SES program to enhance the workforce at federal agencies by developing a group of professionals to ensure delivery of high quality service to the public,” the group, led by Senate Energy Committee ranking member Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg courts critics on Capitol Hill | Amazon makes climate pledge | Senate panel approves 0M for state election security Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers to discuss 'future internet regulation' MORE (D-Wash.), wrote to the GAO. “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.”