Whistleblower Speaks Out: Morale At Interior Department Is 'In The Toilet'

Secretary Ryan Zinke is steering the agency badly off course, says Joel Clement, who resigned from Interior on Wednesday.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has good reason to worry about loyalty and respect among his staff, says a scientist-turned-whistleblower who resigned from his agency post Wednesday citing Zinke’s “poor leadership” and “resume of failure.” 

During a speech to an oil industry group last week, Zinke said: “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.” The former Montana congressman’s comment was met with outrage, including from a trio of groups representing retired Interior employees, which called the remarks “ludicrous” and “deeply insulting.” 

Joel Clement — who blew the whistle on the Trump administration in July, alleging that he was reassigned for warning about the dangers of climate change to Alaska natives — told HuffPost late Wednesday, hours after submitting a fiery resignation letter, that morale at the agency is “in the toilet.”

Under Zinke and and President Donald Trump, he said, Interior employees are constantly “looking over their shoulder,” and those in management positions are “walking around miffed that they are not part of” key agency decisions. 

“The secretary has lost the respect of far more than 30 percent of the staff,” Clement said.

Zinke’s approach to running the agency was on display during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last month. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) took the opportunity to question John Ruhs, acting deputy director of operations at Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, about a number of inaccuracies he identified in a leaked copy of Zinke’s national monuments report, in which the interior secretary recommended Trump shrink or otherwise modify at least 10 protected sites. Heinrich asked Ruhs if local BLM staff who manage a pair of New Mexico monuments on the administration’s chopping block were consulted as part of the administration’s review. 

Ruhs said BLM “did answer questions and provide data as necessary,” but that it was not involved in writing the report or asked to fact-check it for accuracy before it was sent to the White House. 

Clement called Zinke’s monuments report “par for the course.”

“When he gets briefed for a meeting, he receives briefing documents from career staff and he never reads them,” Clement said of Zinke. “When he delivers a product, like the review of the national monuments, it’s sloppy and it’s full of errors. And you can tell that the career staff’s never had a look at that. He’s trying to do this with his team of political temps.” 

Clement added that the workforce is not fooled by its secretary’s compliments — three days after his loyalty comment, Zinke told The Daily Signal the department “has great people” — or the efforts to boost morale. 

“You can’t make up for that lack of respect by throwing a video game and a couple of dog days in there,” he said. “Everyone just sort of rolls their eyes.”

Clement was referring to Zinke’s establishment of “Doggy Days at Interior,” when employees are allowed to bring their canine companions to work, and the installation of a “Big Buck Hunter” arcade game in the cafeteria, a bizarre attempt to highlight the contributions the hunting and fishing communities make to conservation. 

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. The seven-year Interior employee was among dozens of senior Interior staff reassigned in June as part of a sweeping reorganization — transfers now under investigation by the department’s inspector general. Clement went from being director of the department’s Office of Policy Analysis — where, among other responsibilities, he detailed the effects of global warming on Alaska’s native communities — to a senior adviser at an office that, as he described it, “collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.”

After being pulled away from the job he loved, Clement struggled to envision a future at Interior. It became increasingly clear that the new post was not the right fit. Zinke’s remarks about loyalty proved the final straw. 

“It’s profoundly offensive because it portrays a lack of understanding about the civil service and the mission of the agency,” he told HuffPost. “It made it clear that what he’s trying to do is not work with the career staff and advance the mission ― he’s trying to undercut the agency and its mission. And it became very clear that his interests were aligned with special interests, like the oil and gas industry.”

Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.

The department’s press secretary Heather Swift has previously come to Zinke’s defense, telling The Washington Post that his comment about loyalty “was not a literal comparison to the flag of the U.S. or even the administration.”

“In the military structure, to which the secretary was alluding, the flag represents the command of an organization and the policies and procedures it seeks to implement,” Swift told the Post.

Since being sworn in in March, Zinke has met with a slew of oil and gas executives, and has spoken at industry conferences and a trade group’s board meeting. On social media, he posts regularly about fossil fuels, while rarely mentioning the renewable energy sector. And like other Trump team officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Zinke has worked to roll back regulations to combat climate change, and worked to ensure a better future for coal, oil and gas. Still, he insists that he and Trump “don’t pick winners and losers” and that he “favors an all-of-the-above energy strategy.”

Meanwhile, conservation has taken a clear backseat, as the administration pushes for so-called “energy dominance.”

Clement said that while there is still an “all-out assault” on climate science, it is less flagrant than in the months after Trump first took office. In order to make a difference in the field, however, Clement realized he had to move on.

Zinke’s accusation about allegiance — which appeared to reflect the administration’s wider mistrust of the people it employs — made the decision to quit a “no-brainer,” Clement said. And while he hopes to inspire other federal employees to speak out about what’s going on, Clement says it’s important that talented people remain at Interior, to hold Zinke and the administration accountable and not let them “run roughshod” over such agencies. 

In his resignation letter addressed to Zinke, Clement wrote: “My thoughts and wishes are with the career women and men who remain at DOI. I encourage them to persist when possible, resist when necessary, and speak truth to power so the institution may recover and thrive once this assault on its mission is over.” 

As for his next move, Clement doesn’t have anything lined up. But he plans to do what he can to continue supporting those inside the department, and to be a voice for them. 

″I’m thinking of setting up a hotline, a tip line, so that they can reach out to someone and not be worried about it,” he said. “But of course I’m going to need to find a job real soon.”

Read more about Clement’s resignation here