Interior Dept. whistleblower: it’s “banana republic stuff that they’re pulling off in there”

A revealing interview with Joel Clement, the former top climate scientist at the Interior Department

Joel Clement made headlines a year ago when he blew the whistle on the Trump administration’s war on science. He was still working at the Interior Department when he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about getting reassigned from his job overseeing climate policy to a completely unrelated job in the accounting office that collects checks from oil and gas companies. Now he is a senior fellow at both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Harvard Kennedy School and is still speaking out.

Joel Clement, Union of Concerned Scientists

Here’s a transcript of his interview with the Center for Western Priorities’ Go West, Young Podcast.

Aaron Weiss, host of Go West, Young Podcast: For folks who aren’t familiar, can you walk us through what happened to you and others early on in the Trump administration?

Joel Clement: It was only about 6 months into the administration when several dozen senior executives received an email late evening on a Thursday saying, “Hey, you’ve been reassigned.” None of those dozen had been notified beforehand, and it was right at the deadline when a new secretary can come in and reassign senior executives. In my case it was a somewhat flagrant reassignment — as a top climate policy advisor at Interior I’d been reassigned to the office that collects and disperses royalty income from oil and gas and coal interests. It was a very clear retaliatory move on their part.

GWYP: Since you’ve left, what have you seen the Interior Department do in terms of scientific or policy interference around reassignments or elsewhere?

JC: The [Interior Department’s] managed to continue to both intimidate scientists within the agency, intimidate senior executives, and in many cases, reassign them again involuntarily. Which, by the way, you can reassign senior executives involuntarily, but not with the intent to get them to quit the agency.

There’s some very suspect and ethically-challenged techniques and tactics that [Interior’s] using. Within press releases they’ve suppressed language about the anthropogenic causes of climate change, they’ve eliminated climate change from the strategic plan of the agency, and they’ve essentially purged both the personnel and the policies that relate to climate change over the last two years. It’s been a very dramatic change for Interior — especially given that the agency manages one fifth of the US land mass and climate change impacts are of course one of the main drivers of change in this area.

GWYP: I know you’ve been trying to get a hold of documents around your reassignment and others. We know there was already an investigation that found they couldn’t prove there was or was not wrongdoing because [Deputy Interior Secretary] Dave Bernhardt and others just didn’t keep records. Is there a sense that at some point something can get shaken loose? Or do they just get a free pass because they didn’t keep a paper trail?

JC: This is one of the hardest things about working with this group. Their number one tactic is to not write things down. Occasionally someone slips up and records something and it gets out there, but it’s usually not David Bernhardt because he will just not use email, he will do everything in person. He gets away with a lot because of it, and he has for decades. He’s certainly had some run-ins during the Bush administration as well with ethics so, he’s figured out ways to get out around this stuff. But our hope of course is always that the information will, as you said, get shaken out and we’ll find out more about the motives behind things like the reassignment.

“Zinke has this weird sort of monarchy mindset”

When questioned by the Inspector General about the reassignment they gave two or three reasons why they reassigned the executives — things like getting people out of DC or moving them out of jobs they’ve been in for a long time. But when the IG went back and looked, they hadn’t accomplished any of those, so they were clearly making those reasons up. When asked again, “What were your reasons, really, come on?” They said they couldn’t remember. So you know, its so, it’s just sloppy, it’s kind of banana republic stuff that they’re pulling off in there.

GWYP: Are you still in touch with folks inside DOI? What’s it’s like for both the rank and file civil servants and for the senior executives who are being subject to these kinds of shenanigans?

JC: The senior executives are all looking over their shoulders. They’re in a tough spot because they are the interface between the career ranks and the political appointees. They’re really never sure how their job is going to look a year from now — where they’re going to be working and where they should be investing their time. Elsewhere in the career ranks we’ve got a very depressed workforce. Morale is in the toilet. And that started quite a while ago.

When Zinke was speaking to the oil interest group saying, “Yeah, I think I’ve got about 30% of the career workforce that’s not loyal to me,” even a Republican congressman, I think it was [Rob] Bishop, said “Yeah that’s a huge underestimate, Secretary Zinke.” No one needs to be loyal to the Secretary, that’s not what it’s about. The career ranks are loyal to the American people, the constitution, to implementing the laws and the rules that Congress asks them to implement.

Zinke has this weird sort of monarchy mindset, and it doesn’t fit with the way an agency should be run. It does appear as though he and his associates are trying to intentionally break down the agency and hollow out the workforce. They’re hoping people will leave in frustration.

U.S. Interior Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. | gs.gov

GWYP: Is this a partisan thing, where you have a department full of Democrats? Or is this something unique compared to, say, the Interior Department under Dirk Kempthorne, under the George W. Bush administration?

JC: This is taking it to a new level. You know the career ranks, career civil servants are nonpartisan. Their job is to implement the laws and rules of the land and to advance the mission of the agency. Each of the bureaus of Interior has a different mission, and those staff are meant to nudge that along.

During the Bush administration I think there were certainly some concerns about scientific integrity, the politicization of science, and respecting the scientific workforce at Interior. The people I’ve talked to at DOI who have been there for many decades have never seen anything like this. It’s a flat out disregard of the civil service and desire to shrink and hobble the agency. It makes sense that that would be their goal given that their patrons and donors are all oil and gas interests and mining interests. Zinke’s got a checklist that came from the Heritage Foundation and he’s ticking through it — and in the process he’s trying to break down the agency. Hopefully we can turn it around with some oversight in the coming couple of years.

GWYP: From what you can tell, which political appointees, or which agencies inside DOI are doing the most to interfere with scientific integrity right now?

JC: The US Geological Survey is the giant scientific enterprise within DOI, and that’s where you’ve seen the greatest amount of self-censorship around the term “climate change.” Every grant that comes out of DOI, including from USGS, needs to go through a political review, which is unprecedented. Anything over 50,000 dollars needs to go through this guy up in the secretary’s hallway who’s an old football buddy of Zinke who knows nothing about science. It’s just such a crazy, bizarre thing for these scientists to have to think through that lens to get their work out.

At USGS, they’re gonna do their jobs, these are great people and they’re gonna do their work, but their work is not gonna see the light of day, because they’ve been prohibited from putting it out there publicly without explicit permission from the leadership.

So it’s hard at USGS, but the same is true at the Fish and Wildlife Service. You know this is the organization that determines whether species should be listed or delisted, but they also manage the wildlife refuges and the ESA decisions right now are being driven by political impulses rather than the science. So they feel oppressed. The National Park Service has some fantastic science out there. They’ve been doing great work on global change and how it affects the national parks and they have been hobbled in many ways as well. I think across the agencies you’re seeing some flavor of this. At the BLM, Bureau of Land Management, it’s the same thing. They’ve got a science enterprise there too that’s being pressed down as the overall leadership emphasis is on leasing to oil and gas, and even coal now. Certainly they not only feel as though their voices are not at the table now, but that the science enterprise at DOI has been disempowered.

GWYP: I want to go back to the Endangered Species Act because we’ve seen Dave Bernhardt say publicly that he’s going after ESA framing it as “reform.” We just saw a former Monsanto executive get nominated by the White House to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service. What should folks be looking for? How will they know when an attack on the Endangered Species Act is happening? What does that end up looking like on the ground from a policy memo perspective?

JC: We’ve already seen their intentions aired out. They’re collaborating with some congressionals on that, and they’re using the language of economics to justify their reform. And this is one thing that really wrangles scientists because a listing decision should be made based on the science. I mean the species is either threatened or endangered or its just not. Now they’re saying, “Well, you need to consider economic cost.” And that completely defeats the purpose of the ESA.

There’s a little bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing there. Everyone thinks cost and benefits is a good thing, but when you’re trying to make a scientific decision based on economic argument you’re undercutting the intent of the statute. So I think that’s one thing to keep an eye on.

The other one is that they’re talking about reducing review time for environmental reviews. They want to cut down the amount of time it takes to get permits, and they’ve signaled that from the beginning. Whether that’s ESA or NEPA or any other of the environmental statues, their hope is that by shortening the time and the process they can reduce the input and the influence of scientific process in place.

GWYP: If Ryan Zinke was to get fired or quit tomorrow, would a lot change with Dave Bernhardt in charge?

JC: I have to say it’s somewhat satisfying to see the headline that Zinke appears to be circling the drain because he is so bizarrely corrupt and he is ethically challenged. He’s very clearly not good for the agency or the American people. Dave Bernhardt as deputy is a lot like Wheeler over at the EPA when Pruitt was booted out. You got a new guy in there who’s a much more low key person, savvy about the bureaucracy and hasn’t changed policy at all. So I think we’ll see a mirroring of that at Interior because David Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest are remarkable.

But despite that, as we mentioned earlier, he doesn’t write things down. He’s careful about where the line is on ethics. He says all the right things about ethics when in fact he’s just as good as getting around things. And his intent is no different from that that Zinke brought to the agency which is: get out of the way government because these companies want to have full access to our public lands and we’re gonna do everything we can to reduce the influence of Americans and tribes and others who might stand in the way of the industry capture.

In one way you want to have a buffoon up front because even though he’s doing damage, at least he’s attracting attention to the damage. Bernhardt can be a more subtle influencer and yet do the same amount if not more damage going forward. So I worry quite a lot about him as number two.

GWYP: If you got a call from either the House or Senate committees asking “how do we do our jobs and provide oversight to the Interior,” how do they do that? What do you recommend they do first thing out of the gate come January 2019?

JC: I think you have to start on ethics because we’ve got the wrong kind of people leading these agencies, it’s inappropriate and it’s not good for public lands or for American health and safety in many cases. Secondly we need to look closely at how they’ve made decisions — everything from the reassignments to the way they’ve treated senior staff to the way they’ve advanced the deregulation agenda without public process.

I think that we need to take a close look at the rules around public engagement and involvement. They’ve been skipping a lot of steps. But the damage they’ve done to the civil service is a lot harder to repair. And I think we need to take a very close look at how they’re treating the career ranks, their engagement, their empowerment, their voice and the impact of science and the availability of science to make policy decisions. We have to find a way through oversight to ensure that we stop this delinking of science and policy. We really need to bring science back to the front of the policy conversation.

GWYP: I know we’ve got listeners inside the Interior Department. What’s your message to them? Either as they try to keep their head down or as they consider following in your footsteps and blowing the whistle on something they see happening. What do you tell them right now?

JC: Look, I get it cause every day many of the folks in there are having to choose between “Is this the day I raise my hand and say, ‘enough,’ or do I keep my head down and do the work because if I’m gone then no one else is here to do it.” Not only do we lose this crucial knowledge we lose the people who are doing the work. Obviously Zinke and Bernhardt want everyone to leave. They want a really clean house and to have a barebones agency that’s not able to implement laws and regulation. That’s their goal.

I try and get the message out that we understand one way or the other which way you go, but hang in there. “This too shall pass” is an important attitude, but at the same time there are ways to subtly nudge these folks towards both ethical and mission-oriented behavior and I urge folks to do that.

If anyone is being asked to do anything that goes against the mission of the agency or laws absolutely blow the whistle. The Union of Concerned Scientists and others have resources that can help you. Talk to the Office of Special Counsel or talk to one of these organizations and find a lawyer and know your rights and protections. When I was reassigned I had no idea what my rights and protections were, I had to get some legal help to find that out. People need to do that because you’d be surprised, life doesn’t have to suck as much as it seems like it does right now. It can be better and you have protections and there are systems in place.

GWYP: So you’re now on the outside with Union of Concerned Scientists. How’s life on the flip side, and what are you doing now?

JC: I resigned a few months after my whistle-blower actions. Since then I’ve been working as a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists and as a full time senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. I am diving back into a lot of the climate change and Arctic work that I was doing before I left. Probably my voice is a bit more influential on the outside then it would have been on the inside. So things have turned out alright. Frankly I think I can be a lot more influential now.

I take civil service seriously, as an honor. I know that your listeners there at Interior and other agencies do the same. We’re not doing this for the money. It’s hard work. You’re dealing with these political wins and it’s a real drag sometimes, but leaving that I took very seriously because it was an honor to be there and honor to work with those great folks. I would do it again. And I hope that they can stick it out and continue to do good work.


For more information, sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to Go West, Young Podcast.