Zinke’s Interior Department reassignments disproportionately targeted Native Americans and women

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Newly released government documents show that the reassignment of top staffers last summer by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke disproportionately targeted Native Americans and women.

Half of the 33 individuals reassigned in July 2017 are women. And nearly a third are Native American. A few other individuals also reassigned are black and Latino.

Zinke was already facing criticism for his approach to diversity after recent reports that he repeatedly told employees “diversity isn’t important.” Last week, Democratic lawmakers called for Congress to investigate whether Zinke’s reassignment of the 33 senior career civil servants violated federal anti-discrimination laws. This release of documents provides specific details about each reassignment.

The new revelations also come amid growing tensions between the administration and tribal groups and conservationists, as Zinke continues to push for public lands to be opened to oil, gas, and minerals extraction. Many of the sites targeted by the Interior Department thus far have been deemed highly sensitive by environmentalists, indigenous communities, and the National Parks Service.

The documents released are part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by attorney Katherine Atkinson, who represented Joel Clement, an Interior Department climate scientist whose reassignment saw him go from director of the Office of Policy Analysis to a senior adviser position at the Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue before he resigned in protest.

Clement made headlines with his July 2017 Washington Post op-ed. In it he wrote, “I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities,” later adding, “I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government.”

Interior Department employees who focused on climate change were also among those reassigned last year, as was highlighted by the media at the time. The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) former associate director for climate and land use, Virginia Burkett, for example, “voluntarily took a downgrade” to an ecologist position during the reassignment notice period. Burkett currently works as the chief scientist for Climate and Land Use Change at USGS.

I absolutely think they were targeting people who worked on climate issues,” Atkinson told ThinkProgress. 

Now, additional details have come to light about other senior career officials impacted by Zinke’s reassignments.

“When you compare it to the demographic data” for those working at the Interior Department, women and Native Americans were disproportionately affected, Atkinson explained.

She added that further conclusions cannot be drawn about the new positions individuals were reassigned to, or who took over the roles, without individuals coming forward to say they believe the action was taken for discriminatory reasons. 

The Interior Department denies that Zinke has said anything about criticizing the need for diversity. The agency did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

While Zinke’s comments about diversity aren’t good, Atkinson said, they’re not necessarily unlawful. This changes, however, if he was referring to a position that has rules that say Native Americans must be prioritized for filling that role.

Under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act, federal agencies are not allowed to make hiring decisions using race as a basis for the decision. However, there is an exception under the DOI’s Indian Preference rules, that for some positions in some of the agencies — within the Indian Health Service and Indian Affairs — they require preference be given to hiring Native Americans.

A former government official has described the reassignment of top Native American staffers as “part of an effort to remove internal opposition to Zinke’s plan to open up more tribal and public lands to the fossil fuel industry,” Talking Points Memo reported.

At least 10 of the individuals reassigned last July are Native American, according to analysis of the released reassignment list by Talking Points Memo (TPM).

This includes Chickasaw Nation member Stanley Speaks, who was the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) regional director for the northwest region. He was reassigned to be BIA’s regional director for the southern plains but, according to notes in the released documents, Speaks decided instead to retire at the end of 2017.

Oglala Sioux member Michael Black worked as a senior adviser to the director of BIA. While the July 2017 document says Black’s reassignment was still to be determined, in January it was announced that he would become the regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Great Plains region.

Former BIA director and member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Weldon “Bruce” Loudermilk, was also reassigned from his directorship to become the deputy director of field operations at the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. (In October, Bryan Rice, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was named the new BIA director.)

More broadly, Interior Department offices that serve Native Americans remain severely understaffed. A report by the Government Accountability Office last year found more than 1,500 vacancies at the Indian Health Service, for instance. President Trump’s pick to run the office withdrew his nomination in February after reports that he had lied on his resume.

“If you have experienced people who understand the U.S. government’s responsibility to Indian tribes, they’re more likely to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we have an obligation to our 567 tribes, and you can’t just open everything up to mining and drilling,” Bryan Newland, former senior policy adviser at BIA under the Obama administration, told TPM.

“Those folks were moved to get them out of the way,” Newland argued, “so that the oil- and gas-centric policy can move quickly.”



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