Joel Clement on Why He Quit the Dept. of the Interior

The longtime DOI employee says he was forced out because he spoke up about the risk climate change poses to Alaskans. We caught up with him to talk the state of the Interior, how his colleagues are faring, and what he'd say to Secretary Ryan Zinke if given the chance.

(Matt Artz / Upsplash)

On October 4, Joel Clement, a career employee at the Department of the Interior, tendered his resignation. In the letter explaining why, he didn’t hold back, citing Secretary Ryan Zinke’s “resume of failure” and accusing him of wasting taxpayer money and betraying the American people.

Until June, Clement was in charge of the Office of Policy Analysis, where he worked primarily on the effects of climate change in Alaska. Then he was abruptly transferred to a position in the office that audits royalty payments from companies extracting oil and coal on public lands—an area well outside of his expertise. Clement concluded that the Trump Administration was trying to coerce him to leave the DOI, and he filed a public complaint on July 19, claiming that his reassignment was retaliation for his speaking out publicly about the danger of climate change.

Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce spoke with Clement a few days ago about his experience, how he sees the Trump Administration undermining the institutions of government, and what he wishes he’d said to Zinke.   

OUTSIDE: Describe the letter that outlined your reassignment.
CLEMENT: I got an email at 8 p.m.—I happened to check email because a friend said “Hey, I was just reassigned, you might want to check your email”—and the letter said something to the effect of, “We’re going to move you, and we’re going to move you to this auditing office because you have economists on your staff currently, so you must know about money and numbers and therefore we’re going to move you to an auditing office.”

It was just ridiculous. It was an attempt to make some excuse for sending me somewhere where they hoped that I would quit.

As far as I know, you’re one of the few high-ranking officials, or the only one, to file a complaint. How did your colleagues at the Interior treat you after you filed it?
Well, first of all, I think there may be others, they just haven’t been public. We don’t know yet. I’m hoping that there are others.

I took a week off after filing, and when I came back, I was nervous about going in that front door, because I didn’t have any idea how people would react. Boy, I was so encouraged and relieved. Everyone was very supportive.

I’m not going to mention any specific people because everyone is quite nervous, everyone is looking over their shoulder. I will say there were a lot of smiles and handshakes and low-key appreciation in public spaces, and a lot of people came by my office in private just to say thank you and I hope you’re doing alright and good luck.

If, as you allege, shifting personnel is a strategy to get people to quit, do you think it’s been effective at silencing the conversation about climate change within the department?
First of all, it’s unlawful. But yes, I think it put quite a chill in the Senior Executive Service, in particular. Everyone is keeping their heads down, people are not talking much about it.

Where do you see the DOI headed? What’s the outcome of all of this?
There will be more turmoil. Secretary Zinke has not demonstrated the kind of dedication to ethics that you’d hope to see, so there may be other problems for him. There are several investigations going on right now, including the ones that I’m involved with.

But the career staff are dedicated and they’re on the ball and they can get the job done regardless of the turmoil upstairs. You know, there are 70,000 people that work for the DOI and there are probably 65 political employees there right now. So, there’s only so much damage they can do to an agency with so much inertia.

That was something people talked about a lot in the aftermath of the election—that there’s a lot of inertia in the federal government and it’s hard to change things quickly. But a lot of things seem to have changed quickly, so do you really believe that?
Well, here’s why I haven’t revised my opinion: yes, there is this all-out assault and they’re trying to break down the agencies from within, particularly Scott Pruitt and Secretary Zinke, but they’re not very good at it, so they’re landing in court.

We’re seeing this over and over and we’ll continue to see it. The nullification of the Clean Power Plan is a good example. Three times the Supreme Court has decided that the EPA must regulate CO2 emissions. You can’t just stop doing it, or you’ll land in court.

They’re just sort of stalling tactics. The Administration is throwing kind of ham-fisted punches at rules and policies and laws and they’re not landing, for the most part. But you’re right, of course, that many things are changing and that’s frustrating to see.

So, in some senses, they’re not being very effective at getting things changed.
Yeah, they don’t really know what strings to pull to get it to happen. What they do know, what they’re experts in, is the kind of political language around what they are trying to do. But the actual implementation is not something that they’ve demonstrated any acumen at.

Other than reassignments.
Well, yeah, but that was just a statement as much as anything else. And it was a failure. It was widely panned as a clumsy half-effort to make their mark on the agency. There are still only a handful of people who have been Senate confirmed. They still are missing a lot of positions.

Their political strategy isn’t going to trickle down to the career folks that way. But we’ll see. Maybe they’re up to all kinds of crazy sneaky stuff and just not telling us about it.

But if the goal is to gum up the works, that’s not working well?
Right. They’re not succeeding at that, even though that is certainly the goal. What they are succeeding at is taking the scientists and experts out of the equation by putting all the advisory committees on hold and so on. That's happening across the federal level. They clearly don’t want to be challenged by people who know their subject matters. 

You’ve said your reassignment sets a dangerous precedent. Why is that?
With every transition there are new priorities and people get all spun up about the changes that will happen. But if you think back to when we went from Clinton to Bush and then Bush to Obama, the priorities certainly changed in that period of time, but never has a Cabinet member come in with the deliberate intention to disable the agency that he’s leading. And that’s a really dangerous precedent. That’s a disregard for the rule of law and the will of the people and Congress. And in my view, it’s flying in the face of the Constitution. So I think it’s a bigger deal maybe than a lot of other people think, and I worry about it.

Even if someone comes in with that aim, can they really accomplish that?
I think ultimately the mission of the agency and the intent of Congress and the intent of the Constitution will win the day. But we’re going through a terrible period of churning and disappointment with the behavior of these public servants, who are clearly not serving the public.

If you actually had the opportunity to meet face to face with Zinke, what would you say to him?
I would ask him to resign, I would ask him to step down. I’ve thought about this a lot. If I got stuck in an elevator with him in the building before I left, that’s exactly what I would have said.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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