Frozen out of work on cli­mate

Re­as­signed civil ser­vants say gov­ern­ment is si­lenc­ing them

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Halper

WASH­ING­TON — In­te­rior De­part­ment man­ager Joel Cle­ment fig­ured his new bosses in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion might dis­ap­prove of his cli­mate-change-fo­cused work pro­tect­ing Alaskan vil­lages from ris­ing seas.

But the re­as­sign­ment slip Cle­ment re­ceived in June stunned him. He was not only re­moved from his post as direc­tor of pol­icy anal­y­sis, he was de­posited into a new job au­dit­ing fos­sil fuel com­pany leases.

Ap­prox­i­mately 50 such slips went out to the de­part­ment’s most ex­pe­ri­enced and highly paid man­agers. Other re­cip­i­ents in­ter­viewed were just as puz­zled as Cle­ment. It seemed to them that they were get­ting moved for the sake of get­ting moved — of­ten to jobs un­re­lated to their skills. On Wed­nes­day, Cle­ment joined those who have quit in frus­tra­tion.

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke may have shed some light on his think­ing last week when he told a petroleum in­dus­try group that he be­lieves nearly a third of his work­force is dis­loyal to the Trump agenda. “I got 30% of the crew that’s not loyal to the f lag,” he said, in a re­mark first re­ported by the As­so­ci­ated Press.

Most new ad­min­is­tra­tions move quickly to re­ori­ent the fed­eral work­force to­ward their agenda, but they usu­ally rely on the deep ex­per­tise of top-level man­agers such as Cle­ment to

move the stub­born levers of bu­reau­cracy. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proach has been dif­fer­ent.

“I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have been around the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for decades and they say tran­si­tions can be tough, but what this group is do­ing is re­mark­able,” said Cle­ment, who filed a whistler-blower com­plaint over the re­as­sign­ment. “They have moved me into an area I know noth­ing about. It might as well be Chinese.”

Cle­ment’s old job has yet to be filled. The Alaskan vil­lages he has ad­vo­cated for, he said, are on the verge of get­ting washed away.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions have sig­naled deep sus­pi­cion of many of the civil ser­vants on the gov­ern­ment pay­roll, par­tic­u­larly when their work has in­volved con­fronting cli­mate change or en­forc­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions and other reg­u­la­tions the White House is work­ing to roll back.

Some re­as­sign­ments have come after me­dia on the right de­manded them, as was the case of a high-level State De­part­ment staffer whose in­volve­ment in the Iran nu­clear deal was high­lighted by the Bre­it­bart News web­site. Scores more diplo­mats at the de­part­ment have been largely idled by an ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­ject­ing am­biva­lence about their work.

At the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, long­time civil ser­vants — some with doc­tor­ates in en­vi­ron­men­tal work — say they have been frozen out be­cause their vo­lu­mi­nous ad­min­is­tra­tive records are out of sync with a Trump po­lit­i­cal agenda that holds that much of what they do is junk sci­ence.

“The work of the EPA sci­ence arm has now been dis­con­nected from the agency’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing,” said Jeff Ruch, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the ad­vo­cacy group Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees for En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­spon­si­bil­ity. “It’s like a bu­reau­cratic Dunkirk over there. They are just stuck wait­ing on the beach.”

Betsy Souther­land left her post in Au­gust as direc­tor of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy at the EPA Of­fice of Wa­ter after she said the ad­min­is­tra­tion all but ig­nored her team’s work. Just be­fore she left, her di­vi­sion had com­piled what she called “ex­cru­ci­at­ingly de­tailed brief­ings” ex­plain­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age and pub­lic health risks that would re­sult from an in­dus­try de­mand to sus­pend re­stric­tions on waste­water dumped by power plants.

“We thought we could present this heavy-duty tech­ni­cal record and con­vince [EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott] Pruitt he should not re­peal ev­ery­thing,” she said. “We could show that what in­dus­try was say­ing was just not based in fact. But it fell on deaf ears. It all went to naught.”

Her res­ig­na­tion came after the de­par­ture at the EPA of David Schnare, a long­time friend of the right with deep ex­pe­ri­ence at the agency. The pres­i­dent had tasked him with align­ing ca­reer staff with the Trump agenda. Schnare wrote in an op-ed ar­ti­cle for the In­side EPA news­let­ter that he found the chal­lenge in­sur­mount­able be­cause Pruitt had lit­tle in­ter­est in hear­ing what the agency’s man­agers had to say. He wrote that he ul­ti­mately quit after Pruitt or­dered staff to break the law in deal­ing with what Schnare opaquely de­scribed as a “sen­si­tive is­sue.”

“In my view, this vi­o­lated our oaths of of­fice and placed the ca­reer staff in an un­ten­able po­si­tion,” Schnare wrote in July.

EPA cli­mate change ad­vi­sor Michael Cox, who had been with the agency 25 years, sent his own scathing res­ig­na­tion let­ter to Pruitt in April. “We un­der­stand that our po­si­tions might not al­ways pre­vail,” Cox wrote, “but please take the time to lis­ten to ex­pert voices that might dif­fer from yours and your im­me­di­ate staff.”

EPA of­fi­cials ar­gue that such crit­ics don’t re­flect the pre­vail­ing view at the agency, which just com­pleted a buy­out pro­gram that re­duced its work­force by 440 em­ploy­ees. They say the com­plaints are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, com­ing from ac­tivists who want to scut­tle the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion agenda. And they re­fute Schnare’s al­le­ga­tions, point­ing to var­i­ous meet­ings Pruitt has had with the agency’s man­agers.

“We have a great work­ing re­la­tion­ship with ca­reer EPA em­ploy­ees,” agency spokesman Ja­han Wil­cox wrote in an email. “In their own words, Mr. Cox said he was plan­ning his re­tire­ment be­fore the new ad­min­is­tra­tion and Ms. Souther­land said she was re­tir­ing due to a fam­ily is­sue. De­spite the faux out­rage, both em­ploy­ees will re­ceive their six-fig­ure tax­payer-funded pen­sion and we wish them the best.”

While the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get plan would cut the agency’s work­force by 20% and elim­i­nate or roll back a broad range of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­grams, of­fi­cials there point out that there has been no wave of re­as­sign­ments or staff shakeup since Trump took of­fice.

That hasn’t been the case at the In­te­rior De­part­ment, where Zinke’s shuf­fling of staff and his sug­ges­tion be­fore Congress that he would use re­as­sign­ments to push em­ploy­ees out of gov­ern­ment has trig­gered an investigation by the de­part­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral and given fuel to the whis­tle-blower com­plaint filed by Cle­ment.

Thir­teen le­gal schol­ars, in­clud­ing UC Berke­ley School of Law dean Er­win Che­merin­sky, wrote the fed­eral of­fice that pro­tects whis­tle-blow­ers on be­half of Cle­ment, warn­ing that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach to deal­ing with its se­nior man­agers runs afoul of Nixon-era laws Congress passed to pre­vent purges of sea­soned ca­reer staff for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

“We’d all thought that we had moved past this kind of ret­ri­bu­tion,” said Ge­orge­town Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor Josh Geltzer, who helped or­ga­nize the ef­fort.

Of­fi­cials at the In­te­rior De­part­ment would not com­ment on the whis­tle-blower investigation. But they say Congress cre­ated the class of man­agers to which Cle­ment and the dozens of other re­as­signed em­ploy­ees be­longed, called Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice, so they could have a highly skilled and mo­bile group that can be called on to meet gov­ern­ment’s big­gest chal­lenges, when and where they emerge.

“Per­son­nel moves among the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice are be­ing con­ducted to bet­ter serve the tax­payer and the de­part­ment’s op­er­a­tions,” said a state­ment from the de­part­ment.

Eight Democrats on the Se­nate En­ergy and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee sus­pect a dif­fer­ent mo­tive and have de­manded the in­spec­tor gen­eral re­view the mat­ter.

“They are ba­si­cally get­ting rid of the peo­ple who know the law and tell them ‘you can’t do that,’ and they are putting in peo­ple who are ig­no­rant and do not know the pol­icy frame­work,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (DWash.), rank­ing mem­ber on the com­mit­tee.

She said it is not by co­in­ci­dence that the New Mex­ico direc­tor of the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment has been re­as­signed as Zinke moves to strip pro­tec­tions from two of the state’s new na­tional mon­u­ments and roll back a ma­jor sage grouse con­ser­va­tion ef­fort that the dis­placed direc­tor had cham­pi­oned.

Cle­ment said the de­part­ment’s ef­fort to train him for a job for which he has no back­ground or ap­ti­tude came at too high a cost to tax­pay­ers. The process would have taken weeks and in­volved travel out West. Cle­ment said in his res­ig­na­tion let­ter that the whole process placed un­nec­es­sary stress on the gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees tasked with re­train­ing him.

The ef­fort Cle­ment was pre­vi­ously spear­head­ing — to co­or­di­nate in­ter­a­gency aid to help re­lo­cate res­i­dents in im­per­iled Alaskan vil­lages — has largely stalled, he said.

“They are on the brink of be­com­ing refugees,” he said. “This is work we need to do. This is not just bad gov­er­nance, it is morally dan­ger­ous.”

evan.halper@la­times.com

JOEL CLE­MENT was re­moved from his post pro­tect­ing Alaskan vil­lages from ris­ing seas and given a new job au­dit­ing fos­sil fuel com­pany leases. He quit.

Mark Wil­son Getty Images

“I GOT 30% of the crew that’s not loyal to the f lag,” In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke said last week.

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