Whistleblower Sues Interior Department For Information On Staff Shuffle

"They are bringing this on themselves," Joel Clement said.

WASHINGTON — A scientist-turned-whistleblower who resigned from the Interior Department in October citing agency chief Ryan Zinke’s “poor leadership” and “resume of failure” is suing to obtain  information concerning his own reassignment and that of several of his former colleagues.

Joel Clement told HuffPost he has been “completely stonewalled” in his attempts to get documents via Freedom of Information Act requests and was left with no choice but to file suit against the department.

“They are bringing this on themselves,” he said by phone Tuesday.

Clement sounded the alarm on the Trump administration in July, alleging that he was transferred to a position for which he had no qualifications because he warned about the dangers of climate change. A seven-year Interior employee, Clement was among dozens of senior agency staff reassigned in June as part of a sweeping reorganization that a spokesperson claimed would “better serve the taxpayer and the department’s operations.”

The department’s inspector general is investigating the job shifts to determine whether they were done legally.

In September, while still employed at the agency, Clement filed the first of two Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain records on the reassignments, as well as communications regarding his past work on climate change, as he outlines in his complaint. (Clement co-authored a lengthy 2013 report for former President Barack Obama detailing the “rapid, sustained” changes happening in the Arctic linked to global warming.)

Interior has failed to turn over a single document, Clement said. He filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in an attempt to force the agency’s hand, alleging that Interior has improperly withheld records in violation of FOIA.

“It’s hard to know why they are trying to hide this material,” he said. “We know that they are not a transparent administration, but this is getting absurd.” 

Clement drew national attention in July with a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post, accusing the administration of silencing science and sidelining him in hopes that he would quit. As part of the reassignments, he went from being director of the department’s Office of Policy Analysis to a senior adviser at an office that, as he described it, “collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.”

Clement quit after a few months at his new post. In a resignation letter to his immediate boss but addressed to Zinke, he lambasted the interior secretary and President Donald Trump. He said Zinke’s “agenda profoundly undermines the [Interior Department’s] mission and betrays the American people.” He labeled Zinke, Trump and Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt as being “shackled to special interests such as oil, gas, and mining” and “unwilling to lead on climate change.” 

The lawsuit asks a judge to order Clement’s former employer to “produce all non-exempt responsive records by such a date as the Court deems appropriate.”  

Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.