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Interior Department Whistleblower Goes Public With Claim Of Retaliation By Trump Administration

The former director of the Office of Policy Analysis in the United States Interior Department alleges he was retaliated against for “speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.”

Joel Clement went to the Washington Post to blow the whistle on President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science,” Clement declares.

“Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments,” Clement adds. “Citing a need to ‘improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,’ the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.”

Prior to the “reassignment,” Clement says he raised the issue of climate change with officials in the White House. He also went to senior Interior Department officials, and he made statements at a United Nations conference in June.

Clement asserts, “The administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government.”

He recounts the process by which he has filed forms—”a complaint and a disclosure of information”—with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to challenge the alleged retaliation.

“I filed the disclosure because eliminating my role coordinating federal engagement and leaving my former position empty exacerbate the already significant threat to the health and the safety of certain Alaska Native communities,” Clement states. “I filed the complaint because the Trump administration clearly retaliated against me for raising awareness of this danger. Our country values the safety of our citizens, and federal employees who disclose threats to health and safety are protected from reprisal by the Whistleblower Protection Act and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.”

Federal government employees should enjoy several protections under whistleblower protection law, however, in February, during a House committee hearing to mark the fifth anniversary of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), the Trump administration’s use of gag orders against employees was highlighted.

Democratic Representative Gerald E. Connolly noted the acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services sent a memo on the very first day in office that read, “No correspondence to public officials, that is members of Congress, governors and the like, unless specifically authorized by me or my designee, shall be sent between now and February 3.”

“That language, which ostensibly prevents an employee from speaking with members of Congress on his own, appears to violate” a “number of federal laws,” including the WPEA itself, Connolly stated. “And it certainly sends a chilling message to our federal employees.”

After 1,000 or more State Department employees used a dissent channel to voice their concerns about Trump’s ban on Muslim refugees and immigrants, White House press secretary Sean Spicer slurred them as “career bureaucrats” and declared, “I think that they should either get with the program or they can go.”

Thomas Devine, the legal director for the Government Accountability Project, described the dissent channel as “the proper channel that you’re supposed to use if you’re a public servant, who is following and respecting the code of ethics.”

“It is incompatible with the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act to threaten them with termination or ask them to leave because they’re doing what the code of ethics says they’re supposed to [do],” Devine contended.

As of May, the Merit Systems Protection Board, which reviews federal whistleblower complaints, lacked a quorum. GovExec.com reported, “The three-member board has just one member, because the Trump administration has yet to appoint a chair, and the Republican-led Senate refused to confirm Obama’s 2015 appointee to the board.”

“The board hears complaints by executive branch workers who believe they have been wrongfully terminated, demoted, or reassigned because they made public wrong doing in their agency, or for political reasons, and who disagree with a decision by administrative judges. It needs two members to make a decision, so [it] can’t act on any petitions by workers until a new board member is nominated.”

Perhaps, a few whistleblowers, who disclose threats to health and safety, may see their claims responded to appropriately. However, there seem to be far more stories of federal government employees being shut down.

Robert MacLean is a fairly well-known case. He was an air marshal for the Homeland Security Department. Homeland Security issued an emergency but non-public notice of a specific imminent terrorist threat to long distance flights in July 2003. Two days after, air marshals were informed federal air marshals were pulled from some of the flights due to budget shortfalls.

This whistleblower went through proper channels and expressed concerns. When that failed, he went to the press and blew the whistle on Homeland Security. He was fired and later claimed that was inappropriate because his disclosure was protected by federal whistleblower protection law.

In 2015, the Supreme Court largely agreed with him, and more than twelve years later, he was reinstated as an air marshal.

Scientists working for the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDCR) were concerned that warnings regarding “potential health hazards” stemming from FDA-approved medical devices had gone ignored. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration initiated a whistleblower surveillance program that targeted individuals “who contacted Congress and the media with concerns about FDA’s medical device approval process.” A congressional investigation found the program to be entirely unlawful. [PDF]

Clement warns, “The Alaska Native villages of Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik are perilously close to melting into the Arctic Ocean. In a region that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the land upon which citizens’ homes and schools stand is newly vulnerable to storms, floods and waves.”

“As permafrost melts and protective sea ice recedes, these Alaska Native villages are one superstorm from being washed away, displacing hundreds of Americans and potentially costing lives. The members of these communities could soon become refugees in their own country,” according to Clement.

But the Trump administration has committed itself to promoting denial and transforming government agencies into ministries that erase or whitewash information about the reality of climate change.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt wants climate scientists to debate science on television to further undermine scientific consensus on humankind’s contribution to climate change. This would also serve the fossil fuel industry (which Clement is now coming into contact with more frequently as he collects “royalty checks”).

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke has grown into amateurish climate denier, who seems eager to help fossil fuel companies gain access to public lands that have typically been off-limits.

“Now that I have filed with the Office of Special Counsel, it is my hope that it will do a thorough investigation into the Interior Department’s actions,” Clement proclaims.

He adds, “The threat to these Alaska Native communities is not theoretical. This is not a policy debate. Retaliation against me for those disclosures is unlawful.”

“Born and raised in Maine, I was taught to work hard and speak truth to power. Trump and Zinke might kick me out of my office, but they can’t keep me from speaking out. They might refuse to respond to the reality of climate change, but their abuse of power cannot go unanswered.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."