By Anne Polansky
CSPW Sr. Climate Policy Analyst
Federal whistleblower Joel Clement charged both Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump with “poor leadership, waste, and … failures on climate change” in a fiercely critical letter of resignation submitted yesterday, effective tomorrow. In the letter, Clement accused President Trump and top Department of Interior (DOI) officials of being “shackled to special interests such as oil, gas, and mining” and of being “unwilling to lead on climate change” and thus “[not] to be trusted with our nation’s natural resources.” This administration’s unabashed tendency to side with particular industry sectors over the health and wellbeing of the American people has been demonstrated time and time again.
While serving as a top Interior Department policy advisor for seven years as a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES), Clement had frequently visited Alaska Native villages in an effort to help them better plan and prepare for a set of devastating climate change impacts, such as melting tundra and severe coastal erosion. Then in June he was unexpectedly and involuntarily reassigned to the DOI office that performs accounting services for incoming oil industry royalty checks. Clement has no accounting or oil industry-related skills; he is a trained biologist specializing in climate change adaptation. In response, Clement hired legal counsel, blew the whistle, penned a brilliant op-ed explaining why, and submitted a formal complaint with the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Clement is claiming that Secretary Zinke ordered the reassignment in retaliation against his highly visible work on climate change impacts in the Arctic, and that Zinke did so in a deliberate effort to drive Clement out.
“I blew the whistle on the Trump administration,” Clement explains in his October 4 letter, “because I believe you unlawfully retaliated against me for disclosing the perilous impacts of climate change upon Alaska Native communities and for working to help get them out of harm’s way.”
In the letter, Clement also expressed deep concern for other victims of climate change impacts, such as the recent set of devastating hurricanes, more frequent and severe flooding, marine life die-offs as a result of warmer ocean temperatures, forests at risk from invasive insects, and so on. Upon receiving the Callaway Award for Civic Courage on September 21, Clement remarked that “sadly, it will be the poorest among us who will suffer the most” (see Interior Department Whistleblower Joel Clement Receives Award for Civic Courage). He then fired off another damning assessment of top officials in the Trump Administration:
“They don’t seem to care that they’re putting Americans in greater peril.”
Indeed. The sum of this administration’s actions so far indicate that they just don’t seem to care at all about protecting human health and the environment.
Clement was one of about fifty reassignments ordered by Secretary Zinke. DOI’s Inspector General (IG) is investigating the mass-transfer move, and the OSC will determine whether Clement’s reassignment was lawful. There is real concern among those who study and oversee the treatment of government executives. For example, retired government service veteran Shelby Hallmark discusses Clement’s case in Government Executive:
“Fifty SESers at Interior were impacted by this preemptive strike. More mass reassignments across government could be in the works as agencies develop reorganization plans. This is not a routine transition strategy. It’s a signal that the protections established to prevent politically motivated mistreatment are at risk.”
This concern is shared by a group of legal scholars affiliated with the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, who expressed their concern in an August 24 letter to the OSC. The letter, which GAP contributed to and signed, rightfully points out that “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.” That Clement’s reassignment was a politically-motivated tool of retribution seems obvious on the face of it, but a formal determination by the OSC will be the definitive action and very well could result in the reinstatement of Clement to his former post as policy advisor.
CSPW will be keeping a close eye on this process and will report on any significant developments.
A Surprise Move Motivated by Concern Over Wasted Taxpayer Dollars
Until now, Clement repeatedly indicated he would stay on at the Interior Department and do his best to carry out his new duties responsibly. It appears that a significant part of what may have driven him to change his mind and to leave the agency is his concern over the waste of taxpayer dollars. After all, he would be doing a job for which he is poorly suited and for which he would have had to undergo weeks of expensive training just to be able to perform his newly assigned accounting duties. In a Government Accountability Project (GAP) press release yesterday, GAP ED/CEO Louis Clark called Clement “a brilliant scientist and a courageous civil servant” and echoed Clement’s concerns about the government waste resulting from the many reassignments Zinke has ordered.
“The biggest losers in this management morass at the Department of Interior are the taxpayers.”
Waste and abuse of federal resources is a shared concern: CSPW is worried that the broad self-censorship occurring now across the board among civil servants working on climate change, from one aspect or another, is beginning to prevent the transfer of important climate change science research results to the American people. Taxpayers are also stakeholders with a valid interest in the conclusions drawn from billions of dollars invested in climate science, and many of these taxpayers are among those who need the information the most in order to better plan and prepare for climate change impacts. We wrote about a prime example of such a case of self-censorship earlier this year, when the Centers for Disease Control abruptly canceled a large conference on the human health effects of climate change. The financial loss resulting from the cancellation is a perfect example of wasted taxpayer investment in good government. That Joel Clement is unwilling to waste taxpayer money in order to receive expensive training doing a job he does not want to do in the first place speaks to his personal integrity and to his dedication to public service.
High Praise for Joel Clement’s Departing Remarks
Not since whistleblower and CSPW founder Rick Piltz wrote a detailed, scathing memorandum in 2005 condemning the George W. Bush Administration for its chronic and politically-motivated censorship of federal climate science have we seen a more strident take-down of White House officials for their actions around the climate change problem. Joel Clement deserves much praise for standing up to what amounts to serious wrongdoing, in our view, and for speaking truth to power. Moreover, he is to be commended for outlining so clearly and so passionately his reasons for blowing the whistle and for becoming a voice of dissent. Climate change is an existential threat that no other nation on Earth is taking lightly. His message should serve as a beacon of light for those civil servants who feel the Trump Administration has dimmed the lights too darkly on the important work they do, and need to keep doing.
In depriving Clement of continuing this important work, Secretary Zinke is also turning his back on the core mission of the agency he now runs:
The Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities. (Source: https://www.doi.gov/whoweare)
Failing to protect America’s spectacularly diverse landscapes from coast to coast is not only an immoral act of negligence, it is also, potentially, unlawful. GAP attorneys are exploring the legal implications of a whole set of recent actions taken by the Trump Administration to roll back existing protections and thus put American lives at greater risk of harm. Stay tuned.
So, What Is Next?
It is not yet clear what Clement will do next; he reports that he has not taken a new position. What is clear, however, is his dogged determination to continue working on climate change and to fight against those in the Trump Administration who are ideologically denying the very reality of climate change and are blocking this important work.
“The best use of my skills is to join with the majority of Americans who understand what’s at stake, working to find ways to innovate and thrive despite the many hurdles ahead,” Clement stated in his departure letter.
Clement has now joined the growing number of federal employees who have decided to leave government service under this administration rather than tolerate the increasingly distasteful conditions.
“Keeping my voice is more important than keeping my job,” Clement told the Washington Post yesterday, adding, “I do believe I can be a strong voice to resisting what the Zinke team is doing.”
In our view, one of the most hopeful and uplifting messages in Clement’s resignation letter is this pledge:
“You have not silenced me; I will continue to be an outspoken advocate for action, and my voice will be part of the American chorus calling for your resignation so that someone loyal to the interests of all Americans, not just special interests, can take your job.”
It is abundantly understandable why Clement would call for Secretary Zinke’s resignation, and not just because he is falling under scrutiny for abusing air travel privileges. Clement’s is a strong voice, indeed, but, so far, a lone voice. It is our hope that others at the Interior Department will be inspired by Clement’s courage and come forward as well. When one voice becomes a chorus of voices, the sound is too loud and too compelling to be ignored.
Meanwhile, the Interior Department Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel are continuing their work to address Clement’s formal complaint, and GAP will be keeping a close eye on these much-needed checks on taxpayer-funded government officials.
Clement wrapped up his letter with this:
“The investigations into my whistleblower complaints are ongoing and I hope to prevail.”
We hope he prevails as well, and remain committed to doing all we can at GAP and CSPW to ensure that he does.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.