The Interior Department will wait to reassign career officials as part of an ongoing reorganization until after the department’s inspector general completes an investigation into an earlier round of reassignments, several sources told E&E News.
The sources also confirmed that Interior leaders have already signed off on the transfer of between 20 and 30 Senior Executive Service-level employees at the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other bureaus to new Interior positions.
But the department has decided to wait until after the conclusion of the IG’s probe — which was requested in July by eight Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — out of concern that investigators may find legal problems or errors from the transfer of roughly 50 SES officials carried out in June, according to sources with knowledge of the reorganization.
Interior wants to ensure that if errors occurred in the first round of transfers, they can be corrected before making further moves, according to Interior officials who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the reorganization.
The first round of transfers in June removed, among others, BLM state directors in Alaska, Colorado and New Mexico, whose offices collectively oversee 94 million acres of some of the agency’s most resource-rich and environmentally sensitive lands (Greenwire, June 27).
The IG’s office confirmed to E&E News earlier this month that it was conducting the probe of the June transfers (Greenwire, Sept. 11).
It’s not clear when that inquiry will be completed.
An IG’s office spokeswoman said today there’s no timetable for completing the probe and that investigators only recently completed the "survey phase" of information-gathering to determine the scope of the investigation. That included interviews with some, but not all, of the employees at issue.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told E&E News earlier this week that the investigation has not affected the next round of employee transfers.
"No, we’re continuing to march," Zinke said.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to elaborate on Zinke’s comments in an emailed response to questions from E&E News.
"At this time I have no new announcements on the reorganization," she wrote.
Instead, Swift touted ongoing efforts to shift federal employees from Washington to field offices around the country, where Zinke has said they are needed.
"The Secretary has a bold vision to reorganize and modernize the Department so we can better achieve our missions, and he has talked about that at length many times," she wrote.
Senior executives are required when they enter the SES to sign a form acknowledging they are subject to involuntary reassignments.
By statute, reassignments must comply with proper notification requirements of at least 15 days for a transfer to another SES job within the same agency and the same commuting area, and 60 days for a transfer outside the geographic commuting area.
Interior officials have said they followed those guidelines.
But the moves were controversial, with the eight Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee requesting the IG’s probe in a letter to Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall (E&E Daily, July 25).
The Democrats, led by ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), were particularly concerned about suggestions that the transfers were politically motivated.
"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," the senators told Kendall.
An Interior source said some of the employees transferred in June have hired attorneys and discussed challenging the reassignments. It’s not clear whether any internal complaints or challenges have been filed.
But among the SES staffers reassigned in June was former climate policy adviser Joel Clement, who has filed a whistleblower’s complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. He has said he was targeted because of his public comments on the dangers posed by climate change.
Sources said the morale of Interior employees is low and that many are anxiously waiting for the next round of transfers to other agencies or positions.
Those concerns were amplified this week when Zinke questioned the loyalty of Interior workers to the administration and to him, telling an oil industry audience that "30 percent of the crew" is not "loyal to the flag" (Greenwire, Sept. 26).
Clement took to social media to blast those comments. He told E&E News this week that he doubts Zinke would attempt "mass reassignments" during the IG probe.
"He doesn’t have a full understanding of the mission here at the department, and that’s led to this paranoia about people working against him," he said.
Interior has offered few details on the transfers or the overall reorganization.
Not all reassignments have stopped during the IG’s probe. BLM confirmed last week that Matthew Allen, an Obama-era appointee who was named the agency’s communications director last October, would be transferred to another Interior agency at the end of the month (E&E News PM, Sept. 20). ). Interior said Allen’s transfer is not part of the reorganization effort.
At an event in Washington this week, Zinke said he was working on a reorganization "template" and plans to bring together the department’s superintendents and managers in November to discuss the details.
"I think the superintendents and managers are in the best position to look at the details and make sure functionally that we don’t miss anything, because the objective is to be more joint, to manage systems more than isolated assets," he said.
Zinke reportedly told senior executives from the U.S. Geological Survey at a July luncheon that the agency plans to eventually move the headquarters for BLM, FWS and Reclamation to Denver (Greenwire, Aug. 15).
Zinke provided an overview of his reorganization plans at the luncheon, expounding upon his desire to shift more Interior resources and personnel from Washington to field offices across the country and empower front-line employees with more decisionmaking authority, sources said.
Meanwhile, Zinke has told lawmakers that he wants to reduce the Interior workforce by 4,000 full-time jobs through a mix of attrition, separation incentives and reassignments to meet the recommendations of the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget request.
BLM acting Director Mike Nedd told members of his agency’s executive leadership team shortly after the June transfers that they should expect "one or two more rounds" of transfers.
Reporter Kellie Lunney contributed.