Eight Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked the Interior Department's deputy inspector general on Monday to investigate Secretary Ryan Zinke's decision to reassign roughly 50 senior career officials last month, on the grounds that it could constitute an "abuse of authority."
In the letter to Interior deputy inspector general Mary Kendall, obtained by The Washington Post, and signed by all but three of the panel's Democrats, the senators note that one of the reassigned Senior Executive Service officials – Joel Clement, the department's top climate change official – has alleged he was punished for his work on the issue. Clement, who was reassigned to the department's Office of Natural Resources Revenue, which collects royalty payments from oil, gas and mining firms, wrote an op-ed last week saying, "I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities."
"Any suggestion that the Department is reassigning SES employees to force them to resign, silence their voices, or to punish them for the conscientious performance of their public duties is extremely troubling and calls for the closest examination," wrote the senators, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The Senior Executive Service was established in 1978 to be a mobile group of top-level managers within the federal government, but over time many of these hires have stayed within a single agency. Under the Interior reorganization, many officials are being moved from one division within the department to another, and some are being asked to move states.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that the secretary makes no apologies for his decision to place a slew of experienced career officials in different posts.
"The president signed an executive order to reorganize the federal government for the future and the secretary has been absolutely out front on that issue," Swift said, noting that Zinke mentioned the idea of a reorganization on his first day on the job. "Senior executives are the highest paid employees in the federal government and signed up for the SES knowing that they could be called upon to work in different positions at any time. Congress meant for the SES to be a mobile force that are capable of taking on different assignments to meet the needs of the agency."
The Interior inspector general's office could not be immediately reached for comment.