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Democrats Want Probe of Interior Scientists’ Reassignments

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and other Democrats are concerned the administration is reassigning scientists to try to get rid of them. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and other Democrats are concerned the administration is reassigning scientists to try to get rid of them. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democrats at a hearing for Interior and Energy Department nominees seized on the published comments of an Interior scientist who claims that Secretary Ryan Zinke was using forced reassignments to coax experienced scientists to resign.

The top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Maria Cantwell of Washington, said at the Thursday hearing that she will ask Interior’s Inspector General to investigate the allegations raised by the scientist, Joel Clement, in an op-ed published by The Washington Post.

Clement said he was among 50 senior agency employees who received letters informing them of involuntary reassignments. A seven-year employee at the department, Clement said Zinke cited the need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” to reassign him to “an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.”

Clement was director of the Office of Policy Analysis until last week when he was moved to senior adviser at the agency’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue. He had been working on a project to help native American communities in Alaska that are threatened by climate change.

“I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up,” Clement said in his article.

Citing the article, Cantwell said she was concerned such reassignments by the Trump administration would force career scientists at the agency out and impede important work under the agency’s authority.

“There is a lot of confusion and in my sense a lot of undermining of science,” she said. “ I’m concerned enough that I intend to ask the inspector general to look into it.”

Zinke has said he intends to eliminate around 4,000 positions at Interior, including by using buyouts and reassignments.

Cantwell said she wants to make sure that experienced staff and scientists “are not being reassigned simply because they have those experiences.”

Susan Combs, a former Texas Comptroller who has been nominated to be Interior’s assistant secretary of policy management and budget, told Cantwell she was aware of Clement’s story but that she had not been briefed on the staffing changes.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M, said he shared Cantwell’s concerns.

“What worries me the most about the current administration is the disdain and distrust that has been directed at science data and scientists,” Heinrich said, addressing Brenda Burman, who is nominated to become the commissioner of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.

In response, Burman said she would make sure the bureau had the best scientists. If confirmed, Burman would become the first woman to run the agency in its 100-year history.

“Secretary Zinke is putting his trust in me to give independent advice. I’ll call it as I see it,” Berman, who served in the agency in different capacities in the Bush administration, told Heinrich.

Republicans on the panel did not veer into the topic, sticking instead to prying commitments out of the nominees to pursue efforts they considered priorities to their states. Combs told Colorado Republican Cory Gardner that she would look into helping his efforts to move BLM headquarters to a Western state.

“There is no question that having some headquarters located in the West would result in better policies,” Gardner said.

The panel also took testimony from four other nominees at the hearing.

  • Paul Dabbar, a JP Morgan Chase executive was nominated to become undersecretary for science at DOE. Dabbar is a managing director for mergers and acquisitions, overseeing energy mergers.
  • Former Virginia secretary of natural resources, Douglas Domenech was picked to become assistant secretary for insular affairs at Interior. He served in the Bush administration and most recently was director of the Fueling Freedom Project at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is backed by the oil and gas industry.
  • Mark Menezes, who was tapped to be DOE undersecretary, is a former chief counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He is vice president for federal relations at Berkshire Hathaway Energy and formerly a partner at Hunton and Williams, where he led its energy practice.
  • David Jonas, a partner at the Virginia law firm Fluet, Huber and Hoang, was nominated to serve as general counsel at DOE. He has also worked as general counsel for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

During opening remarks, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski said she plans to move through the nominees quickly and lamented the sluggish process it has taken.

“This process has been a little slower than most of us anticipated, from the receipt of nominations to the delays that we are seeing in confirmations,” the Alaska Republican said. “ . . . It is my intention to move these nominees as quickly as we can . . . hopefully to give them a chance of being confirmed before we leave in August.”

Also on Thursday, Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Environment and Public Works ranking member Thomas R. Carper, said in a news release that they has asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the EPA’s process for picking its science advisers.

The request followed the agency’s abrupt dismissal of 12 scientists from its Board of Scientific Counselors. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the scientists would be replaced with representatives from industries regulated by the agency.

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