Unnamed employees are targeting Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for expressing his belief that striving for staff excellence should be a priority.
Several employees at the Interior Department have told CNN that Secretary Ryan Zinke repeatedly says that he won’t focus on diversity, an apparent talking point that has upset many people within the agency.
Three high-ranking Interior officials from three different divisions said that Zinke has made several comments with a similar theme, saying “diversity isn’t important,” or “I don’t care about diversity,” or “I don’t really think that’s important anymore.”
Members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet have been targeted by federal workers who were employed under the Barack Obama administration, and routine changes such as staff changes or reassignments in a new administration have been construed as malicious by the media.
“Interior last year unexpectedly reassigned 33 senior executive staffers, of which 15 were minorities, according to the lawyer of one of the staffers who was moved,” CNN reported. “Some of those who were reassigned have filed complaints with the US Merit Systems Board.”
CNN said Zinke is being investigated by Interior’s inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel for the reassignments and claims he used taxpayer funds for “possible politically related travel.”
Heather Swift, press secretary for Zinke, responded to CNN’s report by flatly denying any impropriety.
“The anonymous claims made against the secretary are untrue,” Swift said. “As a woman who has worked for him for a number of years in senior positions, I say without a doubt this claim is untrue, and I am hopeful that they are a result of a misunderstanding and not a deliberate mistruth.”
Swift cited two women and an African-American whom Zinke has appointed to senior leadership positions.
“Zinke has filled several other senior positions at the career and appointed level with individuals from diverse backgrounds,” Swift said.
CNN included in its report one of those individuals, Joel Clement, who was reassigned and then quit his position with Interior and is now taking legal action against the agency.
Clement, former director of the Office of Policy Analysis DOI, wrote about his departure in July in a piece in the Washington Post. In it, he describes himself as a scientist and a policy analyst. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has a bachelor’s degree and has previously worked as a field biologist.
Katie Atkinson, the attorney representing Clement, who is white, told CNN that she “believes” at least 15 of the 33 who were reassigned were minorities.
E&E News reported on Clement’s resignation in February.
It was an unseasonably warm Wednesday in October when Joel Clement — the former top climate policy expert at the Interior Department — hit “send” on his resignation letter.
It lambasted President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for being “shackled to special interests,” muzzling scientists and ignoring the threats of climate change. Their scientific denials place vulnerable communities, like Alaska Natives, at great risk, he wrote.
And just like that, Clement became a voice of the resistance.
CNN made the case in its reporting that diversity is synonymous with excellence and used race to imply Zinke has made decisions based on skin-tone rather than skills – a claim, as noted earlier, press secretary Swift has strongly denied.
“The officials who spoke to CNN about Zinke’s comments worry the reassignments may be a sign that what he said wasn’t just a talking point.”
“If you look at the actions he’s taken, they are unbalanced in regards to minorities and women,” said the minority manager who was upset by Zinke’s diversity comment. “If you look at the people who were moved and you look at their race or gender, it’s very obvious that this is a person that does not embrace the concept of diversity.”
Instead, Zinke seems to be embracing the concept of finding the best person for the job regardless of his or her race or ethnicity but with diverse results nonetheless.
The anonymous sources also told CNN that Zinke said “something along the lines” of “I care about excellence, and I’m going to get the best people, and you’ll find we have the most diverse group anyone’s ever had.”
Follow Penny Starr on Twitter