The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the federal whistleblower protection law when he retaliated against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.
The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that USGS Director James Reilly had the employee reassigned after learning of the individual’s complaint regarding Reilly’s conduct ― though the report does not detail the content of that initial complaint.
The scathing report, posted Thursday afternoon, comes two days after Trump’s Interior Department publicly boasted of its efforts to hire additional ethics staff in order to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration.” The agency has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for its ethical shortfalls.
As Thursday’s report details, Reilly tried to convince investigators that the reassignment was due to the employee’s inability to work with another staff member and “negative influence” on the office ― claims that that agency staff directly contradicted.
“A witness also told us that Reilly had described the complainant as ‘evil’ without explaining why he believed this, and Reilly ultimately acknowledged that he said in front of others that the complainant had an ‘evil streak,’ or words to that effect, which he admitted ‘was a very poor choice of words,’” the report states.
Another witness told investigators about a meeting in which Reilly said the complainant had “weaponized the IG process” against him. And USGS employees reported that Reilly sought information about any other employee complaints against him so that he could “move them.”
Asked if he had any issues with the whistleblower, Reilly told investigators, “Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.”
The report does not name the whistleblower or any other USGS staffers interviewed as part of the probe.
“While the [Department of the Interior] provided some evidence of other motivations that may have played a role in its personnel decision, it failed to disentangle those motivations from the evidence of impermissible, retaliatory motive found during our investigation,” investigators wrote.
The Democratic chairs of the House oversight and natural resources committees responded to Thursday’s report by calling for Reilly’s immediate resignation or removal from office.
“Whistleblower retaliation does not get more clear cut than this,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. “Director Reilly made it a practice to seek out whistleblowers and target them for transfer. Anyone who uses official power to retaliate against whistleblowers — who help uncover waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement — is not fit to hold government office.”
In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin dismissed the report as “wrong in its legal and factual conclusions” and said it “attempts to turn the USGS human resources department’s reassignment of an administrative employee into a prohibited personnel practice.” He noted that the employee did not receive a reduction in pay or grade status.
This isn’t Reilly’s first controversy since he was confirmed as USGS director in April 2018. Recent press reports have uncovered how he intervened to halt, alter or delay research on critical scientific topics, including climate change, endangered species, and COVID-19. Reilly was also involved in manipulating agency data to promote logging. And in interviews with Wired, some employees at the USGS described his tenure there as hostile.
Under Trump, the Interior Department has been plagued by scandals. Former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned amid numerous investigations into his conduct, and several other high-ranking officials have been found to have violated federal ethics rules. Several IG probes are ongoing.
If past violations are any indication, Interior is unlikely to take action against Reilly.
The IG’s office released two scathing reports on Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech in the past year, finding that he used his office to benefit family members as well as his former employer, a Koch-linked think tank. Despite the seriousness of the findings, Domenech remains in his position atop the agency’s insular and international affairs office. Domenech is a top lieutenant and close personal friend of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
“For the DOI generally, I would be shocked if they do anything about this report” on Reilly, said Kevin Bell, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that advocates for whistleblowers. “If anything,” he added, “Reilly’s retaliation against whistleblowers only solidifies his Trumpian credentials.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost via email that the report “shows that the risk of being a whistleblower has never been higher than during the Trump administration.”
The administration, he added, “has used every trick in the book, from demotions to presidential tweets, to bully whistleblowers into silence.”
Additional IG reports on the misdeeds of top Interior Department officials, including one who used his office to promote the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association, are expected in the near future.