Almost 30 senior employees based at the Interior Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C. were reassigned last year and some have formally complained it was political retaliation for their work on issues like climate change.
But in a report out Wednesday, the Interior Department's internal watchdog that investigated the claims said it could not determine if the moves violated federal guidelines because the board that reassigned senior employees did not keep proper records documenting its decisions.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been outspoken about allegations of retaliation against researchers, said in a statement that the board's conduct is indefensible.
“This goes beyond mere incompetence. It’s absolutely unacceptable for political appointees to take this action without leaving a public record or any attempt to explain why dedicated public servants are being treated this way," the group's director Andrew Rosenberg said in the statement.
The top Democrat on the committee with oversight of Interior, one of the senators who requested the investigation, called the findings "one more screw-up at taxpayer expense" at the department.
"Reassignment in this case just means it's easier for political operatives at Interior to circumvent the law," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. said in a statement.
Cantwell and other Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked the inspector general to look into the reassignments.
The employees were in a category called the Senior Executive Service and can be reassigned but in this case, the inspector general found that the department did not follow all recommended procedures like detailing how the decisions were made and talking the employees about the decision before it was final.
The professional group that represents those employees said in a statement that the Department's actions "sowed seeds of distrust and suspicion" among career employees.
Senior Executive Association President Bill Valdez said in a statement that the fact that the majority of the officials believe they were reassigned because of their work on climate change or because they were close to retirement "should set off alarm bells for all taxpayers who benefit from our world-class apolitical civil service."
The inspector general's report found that the board in charge of reassigning senior employees called the Executive Resource Board, "did not document its plan or the reasons it used when selecting senior executives for reassignment."
The report wrote that the lack of documents prevented the inspector general "from making a clear determination whether or not the DOI met the legal requirements."
But a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement that the report reaffirmed that the reassignments were all above board.
"Obviously, the evaluation confirmed the Department's long-held view that the ERB has the lawful authority to reassign SES Members and has done so here," spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement.
Swift also said that the department has made changes recommended in the report to add more accountability to the decision-making process. A previous statement about the reassignments said that these Senior Executive Service employees are meant to be a mobile force and that those employees know they could be reassigned.
The law giving agencies the authority to reassign these employees says that they can be moved to another position for which they are qualified. At least one of the employees that was reassigned, Joel Clement, said he was moved from a scientific position to one in an accounting office even though he had no accounting experience.
Clement, formerly the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the department, wrote an editorial in the Washington Post last year where he said he was "blowing the whistle" on his reassignment at Interior. He wrote that his move to an accounting job was retaliation for "speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities."
He also claimed that the reassignments were being used to push out career staff, citing congressional testimony from Secretary Ryan Zinke where he said he would use reassignments, buyouts, and retirements to reduce Interior's workforce.
Clement has filed a complaint with an office that investigates whistleblower complaints and a lawsuit against the department seeking records related to his reassignment that he says they have failed to provide. He is now a fellow for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
That board decided to reassign 35 career employees at Interior, some that would have to relocate outside the Washington, D.C. area. Some of the employees resigned or had their reassignments rescinded before they took effect at 27 were reassigned.
The report says that one employee even had to negotiate breaking his lease because he thought he would be reassigned to a different part of the country, only to find out that his reassignment was canceled.
In interviews with those employees and members of the executive board making the decisions, the inspector general found that the board did not collect information on the employees' qualifications or talk to them before deciding to move them to a different role. One member of the decisionmaking board said they only discussed senior employees they were already had experience with and did not discuss employees they did not know.
The report also found all the people voting to reassign career employees were political appointees, instead of a mixture of political and career staff that is recommended under federal guidelines. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said he will recommend a more balanced panel in a letter responding to the report.
The department has released a list of 33 reassigned employees and other documents related to the decisions.
But the department's inspector general found that records related to the decisions do not exist. In a report issued Wednesday, the office found that the board that reassigned the senior employees did not document its decisions or gather information to inform the decisions.
Because of the lack of documentation of the decision the inspector general's report says they could not determine if the board complied with federal requirements.
Bernhardt wrote in his response letter that he has been "stunned" that offices have not adopted established best practices that were recommended under previous administrations. He wrote that there have been fewer top officials to oversee these decisions because nominees to some decisions have not been confirmed and that he has recommended changes to the board that made these recommendations to
Eight Democratic committee leaders from the House and Senate have also asked a federal government watchdog office to look into whether the reassignments were consistent with federal regulations. A spokesman for the GAO said they accepted the request but have not started the work yet.