Interior Department Whistleblower Joel Clement Receives Award for Civic Courage

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Joel Clement

On Sept 21, 2017, Joel Clement received the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage from the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest. According to the award website, “the award recognizes individuals in any area of endeavor who, with integrity and at some personal risk, take a public stance to advance truth and justice, and who challenged prevailing conditions in pursuit of the common good.” In announcing Clement as one of this year’s recipients of the prize, the trust said that Clement upheld “the highest standards of his civil service oath as a senior federal official” when “he blew the whistle on the Trump Administrations Interior Department for using personnel reassignment to shut down climate change programs, muzzle scientists and undermine subject matter experts.”

Until early July, Clement directed the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Office of Policy Analysis and was one of the agency’s top climate experts. He led DOI’s engagement on climate adaptation and resilience, and on Arctic issues. Among his concerns and responsibilities were the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, and preparing Alaska communities for those impacts.

He also represented the Department of Interior on the Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Sustainability. The SGCR directly oversees the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the entity that coordinates federal research on global change – including climate change – across 13 agencies. The SGCR is responsible for reviewing and clearing the major products of the USGCRP, including its National Climate Assessment reports. Clement was on the SGCR when it oversaw the Third National Climate Assessment published in May 2014.

On June 15, Clement was among a group of dozens of senior DOI Senior Executive Service (SES) officials who were notified that they were being involuntarily reassigned, apparently with the intention of prompting their resignations (see Zinke moving dozens of senior Interior Department officials in shake-up, Washington Post, June 16, 2017). It was part of a larger systematic effort within the Trump Administration to marginalize employees whose work focuses on climate change and other environmental issues (see Civil servants charge Trump is sidelining workers with expertise on climate change, environment, Los Angeles Times, September 26 2017).

Clement was reassigned from his position as lead policy advisor on July 10, the same day he submitted his resignation from the SGCR. On July 28, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sent to the SGCR the final draft of the USGCRP’s Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) for review and clearance. (See our initial coverage of the CSSR in Federal Climate Science Special Report Leaked: Clearance Process Raises Concerns Over Upcoming Climate Assessment Report, August 21, 2017). Clement would not only be excluded from representing the Interior Department on the subcommittee during the final stage of the CSSR, he would also no longer represent DOI on the SGCR as it periodically reviews and clears the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), scheduled to be released for public review in late 2017 and for final publication in late 2018.

Clement: “Im a scientist. Im blowing the whistle on the Trump administration
On July 19, 2017, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece from Clement titled I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration. “I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen,” Clement wrote. “Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.” He continued:

“Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to `improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration’ the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.

… I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government.

On Wednesday, I filed two forms — a complaint and a disclosure of information — with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. I filed the disclosure because eliminating my role coordinating federal engagement and leaving my former position empty exacerbate the already significant threat to the health and the safety of certain Alaska Native communities. I filed the complaint because the Trump administration clearly retaliated against me for raising awareness of this danger. Our country values the safety of our citizens, and federal employees who disclose threats to health and safety are protected from reprisal by the Whistleblower Protection Act and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

Removing a civil servant from his area of expertise and putting him in a job where he’s not needed and his experience is not relevant is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. Much more distressing, though, is what this charade means for American livelihoods.

… I believe that every president, regardless of party, has the right and responsibility to implement his policies. But that is not what is happening here. Putting citizens in harms way isnt the presidents right. Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great.”

Senators Ask Deputy Inspector General of the Department of the Interior to Investigate
On July 24, five days after Clement’s op-ed piece was published in the Washington Post, the Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and several of her Senate colleagues sent a letter to the Deputy Inspector General of the Interior Department, Mary L. Kendall. In the letter, the Senators ask that Kendall look into the reassignment of DOI SES-level federal employees, including Clement, and “report the results of your investigation to the Secretary, the appropriate committees of Congress, and to us.” The Senators wrote:

“Although the law allows the head of an agency to reassign senior executives, it contemplates that reassignments be made `to best accomplish the agency’s mission,’ consistent with the law’s requirements that the SES be administered to `provide for program continuity and policy advocacy in the management of public programs,’ that it `provide for an executive system which is guided by the public interest and free from improper political interference,’ and that the assignment of SES employees be `consistent with the effective and efficient implementation of agency policies and responsibilities’  5 U.S.C. § 3131.

Any suggestion that the Department is reassigning SES employees to force them to resign, to silence their voices, or to punish them for the conscientious performance of their public duties is extremely troubling and calls for the closest examination.        

We believe that any reassignment of highly trained, highly competent senior executives within the Department from the positions in which they may best use their training and competence to accomplish the Department’s mission and best serve the public interest to sinecures where their talents are wasted would constitute a serious act of mismanagement, a gross waste of public funds, and an abuse of authority.”       

On September 12, the Washington Post reported that the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) had opened an investigation of the reassignments. The article quotes Nancy K. DiPaolo, an OIG spokesperson, as saying that “the assessment could take a few months” and that “you can expect the review to list out what facts are found.” (See Interior’s ‘unusual’ transfer of senior executives spurs official probe).

Senators also have raised concerns about these reassignments in confirmation hearings. Most recently, on September 7 Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) raised the issue in his questions submitted for the record for Joseph Balash, the nominee to be Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. Sen. Franken asked:

Will you ensure that science is the basis of management decisions? Do you believe that climate change is caused by human activity as scientists have determined? Will you protect the Departments scientists and experts and ensure that they are free to express views and not retaliated against for doing their jobs?”

Georgetown University Legal Scholars Support Clements Retaliation Complaint
Meanwhile, on August 24, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center intervened in support of Clement’s retaliation complaint to DOI’s Special Counsel. The Institute sent a letter (see Letter Re: Complaint of Joel Clement) to Adam Miles, DOI’s Acting Special Counsel. The letter – sent on behalf of 13 scholars of constitutional, administrative, and civil service law – urged Miles to “conduct a thorough investigation into the complaint of whistleblower retaliation” filed by Clement.

The letter continued:

“Mr. Clement’s complaint presents important questions about the extent of agency heads’ authority to reassign members of the SES. The Executive Branch employees who make up the SES are responsible for, and integral to the success of, countless federal programs. Robust whistleblower protections and insulation from undue political influence are thus key to the efficacy not only of Senior Executives but also of the Executive Branch as a whole. If Mr. Clement’s allegations are substantiated, the OSC should seek his reinstatement and send a clear message, consistent with the statutes governing the SES and prohibiting retaliation, that the reassignment power is designed to promote agency efficiency and not to be used as tool of retribution for protected disclosures or the proper articulation of views out-of-step with a particular administration’s politics”

In his remarks at last week’s Callaway Award event, Clement revealed his strong suspicion that the letter “prevented DOI from doing another round of reassignments that they’ve been promising to do.”

Clement Says Too Few Federal Employees Are Speaking Up: “The silence is deafening”
In accepting the Callaway Award, Clement praised GAP and other groups that have provided him support and fight for stronger whistleblower protection laws; he credited these laws as being “a fundamental element to a functional democracy and absolutely important.” Clement added, “there is a long history of sacrifice that led to creation of these statutes that are protecting me as I pursue my claims against the Trump Administration.”

Clement continued:

“I also want to say to all those potential whistleblowers out there, particularly in the civil service: the first step in finding your voice and using your voice is knowing your rights and protections. Right now, there are not nearly enough…Federal employees speaking up. The silence is deafening, given the consistent pattern of abuses that are taking place.”

Near the conclusion of his remarks, Clement said he would donate the $2,500 he received with the Callaway Award to two organizations providing assistance to those affected in the Caribbean by Hurricanes Irma and Maria: the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, and the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico.

He added:

“Sadly, these extreme weather events will continue to be intensified by climate change.  And the impacts are going to be made worse by slow moving disasters like sea level rise and coastal erosion. Sadly, it will be the poorest among us who will suffer the most. And sadly, the Trump Administration is not doing what we know needs to be done to reverse these dangerous changes taking place. And they dont seem to care that theyre putting Americans in greater peril.”

 

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Nicky Sundt is CSPW’s Senior Fellow. She is an expert on energy and climate change with over 35 years of experience and accomplishment in government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. During the four-month fellowship, Nicky will watch over and report on key US federal climate science obligations under law – especially those relating to communications to the President, Congress, and the public.

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