What drove an Interior whistleblower to dissent?

Climate change official Joel Clement was one of the few current staffers to speak out.

 

Update: Joel Clement resigned effective Friday, and used his resignation letter as a chance to criticize Interior Secretary Zinke for his policy actions on everything from sage grouse to national monuments. “Secretary Zinke, your agenda profoundly undermines the (Department of Interior) mission and betrays the American people,” the letter, sent Wednesday, says. Clement’s resignation does not cancel his whistleblower complaint.

Many of the Interior Department’s 70,000 employees were outraged when their leader, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, recently said that 30 percent of them are “not loyal to the flag.” But while the vast majority of them suffered in silence, Joel Clement, until recently the department’s top climate change official, took to Twitter. “Civil servants are loyal to the flag and also know a demagogue when they see one,” he tweeted. Clement also retweeted negative comments from others about Zinke’s speech in late September to the National Petroleum Council, an Energy Department advisory group comprised largely of industry representatives.

Current and former federal employees and others who heard and read Zinke’s comment interpreted it two ways. Some thought he meant the U.S. flag. To others the “flag” represented Zinke’s leadership of the department. Clement said that as a longtime Navy Seal, Zinke should understand the serious connotation of his words. “I think he is so arrogant that he thinks his special interest agenda is the same as what’s best for America. He is bought and paid for by oil and gas and political ambition.”

Joel Clement speaks against reassignments of career senior executives by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Clement is a rare breed: A vocal dissident inside a cabinet agency in the Trump administration. He’s among dozens of senior executives at the Interior Department whom Zinke reassigned in this summer in an unprecedented shakeup of the top career staff. Instead of quitting, Clement in July started publicly criticizing the new administration and filed a whistleblower complaint. Now he’s urging other civil servants to join him in exposing the ways the Trump administration is betraying the core missions of federal agencies.

To get a feel for his colleagues’ reactions to Zinke’s recent speech, Clement went to the cafeteria at Interior’s D.C. headquarters. “Everyone was super ticked off. What they were saying was they were offended. The refrain was, ‘we are really good at our jobs, we are dedicated to the mission of this organization.’”

Zinke’s comments are “ludicrous and deeply insulting,” according to the statement signed by leaders of various groups that represent retired Interior officials, including the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, the Public Lands Foundation and the Association of Retired Fish and Wildlife Service Employees. But Clement may have been the only current employee to speak out, perhaps, he says, because he has a lot less to lose than others at Interior. Zinke already stripped him of the job he loved. As director of Interior’s office of policy analysis, Clement advised top Interior officials on climate change and led department efforts to aide Native Alaska villages at risk of being swept into the sea because of consequences of climate change.

Clement has a background as a field biologist and worked for a philanthropist supporting climate adaptation and conservation before joining Interior in 2011. But Zinke gave him a job at the Office of Natural Resource Revenue, and he’s being trained to oversee the staff collecting oil and gas payments. “I’m a scientist and policy expert. I have no skills in auditing and accounting,” he said in his whistleblower disclosure. He believes that Zinke’s goal is to get him, and other reassigned execs, especially those with backgrounds in science and natural resources, to quit, so they won’t be in position to question his policies and so Zinke can fill their slots with staffers whose thinking reflects his own.

Clement was working to relocate Kivalina and other Alaska villages at risk of washing into the ocean because of climate change.
Clement has filed a whistleblower complaint charging that he was reassigned because of his efforts to press Interior and the White House to relocate four Alaska coastal villages — Newtok (a Yu’pik community) and Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik, Iñupiat villages. These Native Alaska settlements, and dozens of others, face imminent threats as melting sea ice exposes their communities to erosion and storm surge that are partly due to climate change. His whistleblower complaint is being considered by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency charged with protecting federal workers. Meanwhile, the Interior department’s Inspector General is investigating his reassignment and that of the other senior Interior staff shuffled around by Zinke.

Read Clement’s whistleblower complaint here.

Clement hasn’t quit, he says, because of the “very slim chance” he could return to his previous position and help the Interior Department take climate change seriously. “Every one of the bureaus is going to have mission failure if we don’t pay attention to climate change,” says Clement, whose former job remains vacant. For instance, the U.S. Geological Survey can’t be a world-class scientific agency if it ignores climate change. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won’t be able to protect rare species if it ignores the risks posed by sea-level rise, increased wildfire and other consequences of climate change. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs cannot assist the Interior Department in adequately fulfilling its trust responsibilities to American Indians and Native Alaskans, unless it responds to climate change.

A house in Shishmaref, Alaska, in 2006 that was damaged by erosion.
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Now Clement is urging other civil servants to join him in documenting examples of the Trump administration violating laws and abandoning agencies’ missions. Clement suggests they pass incriminating documents to Congress or file complaints with the Inspector General.

Veterans of the Interior Department say it’s not surprising that Clement is mostly alone in his crusade, because the department’s culture doesn’t tolerate dissent. “I think that’s a hard thing to ask of career employees. I think they’re afraid for their jobs,” says Maureen Finnerty, president of the Coalition to Protect National Parks, who spent 31 years as a National Park Service manager. “I understand why they don’t want to stick their necks out.”

Finnerty wholeheartedly agrees with Clement’s assessment of how the Trump administration is changing the Interior Department. “Here’s the trend we see coming out of Zinke: Everything he’s done is skewed towards industry and development and allowing private companies to profit off of public resources.”

Clement has gotten a lot of support, even though he’s the only reassigned official speaking out. He received an award for civic courage from the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest. Thirteen law professors and fellows wrote a letter to the Office of Special Counsel asking for Clement’s reinstatement if his allegations are confirmed. Clement is one of 225 employees at Interior who are part of the Senior Executive Service, a group of career managers created by Congress to provide consistent leadership and guard against abuse of executive authority by political appointees. “The alleged treatment of Mr. Clement contravenes Congress’s design and illustrates the danger to the healthy functioning of our Federal Government of an (Senior Executive Service) subjected to undue political influence,” the professors wrote. Eight Democratic senators called on the Inspector General to investigate the reassignments and an online petition asking for the inspector general investigation collected more than 170,000 signatures. The Senior Executives Association has spoken out: “There is great concern about the reassignments and their corrosive effect on morale and leadership effectiveness at affected agencies.”

Children play next to a water storage tank — one of the only places to get fresh water in Newtok, Alaska. The village is one of many that has to relocate due to melting permafrost and rapid erosion of its landmass. Joel Clement had been urging the Department of the Interior to respond to the climate threats in Alaskan villages and believes that it was part of the reason he was reassigned.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Clement has become a mini-celebrity in Washington. Stories about him have appeared in major newspapers and websites and he’s been interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition, the PBS NewsHour and MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “It doesn’t matter what administration you’re in, you have to be discreet talking to the press and talking to the Hill,” Clement said. “I only wish there were more civil servants who felt the freedom to do it. It’s a commentary on our Big Brother mentality at the Department of Interior that nobody does.”

He still holds out hope that he will get to speak his mind directly to the big boss. And he’s got an idea of how he might be able to do that. To encourage a hunting ethic among his staff, Zinke installed an arcade game with rifles called Big Buck Hunter Pro in the cafeteria. The employee with the best score gets to visit with Zinke in person. “Which made me really want to learn how to play this game,” Clement says with a smile. “I may go in nights and weekends and get really good.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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