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US Geological Survey director wrongly reassigned whistleblower, watchdog says

Employee was moved after complaint against Director James Reilly

The Interior Department has been under ethical clouds since the tenure of Ryan Zinke, the former secretary, and its current head, David Bernhardt.
The Interior Department has been under ethical clouds since the tenure of Ryan Zinke, the former secretary, and its current head, David Bernhardt. (Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images file photo)

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the whistleblower protection law by retaliating against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to the Interior Department’s internal watchdog. 

USGS Director James Reilly reassigned the unidentified employee soon after he learned the employee filed a complaint against him with Interior, the inspector general said in a report Thursday.

It is unclear what prompted the employee to file the report against Reilly or the nature of the accusations, though Reilly at one point described the complainant as possessing an “evil streak” and said the employee “weaponized the IG process” against him, according to the IG.

A USGS spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the report and its findings.

The Interior Department has been under ethical clouds since the tenure of Ryan Zinke, the former secretary, and its current head, David Bernhardt.

Zinke was under multiple inspector general investigations when he resigned at the end of 2018, and it emerged four days after the Senate confirmed Bernhardt in April 2019 that he was under IG investigation due to “potential conflicts of interest and other violations.” 

Bernhardt was later cleared by the IG office of using improper influence over the regulation of several pesticides.

In May, the inspector general found that Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Douglas Domenech contacted an EPA official in person and via email in 2017 on behalf of a family member pursuing a job at the agency. It also found that he promoted another family member’s private wedding business to that EPA official.

The IG opened an investigation into the tactics of the U.S. Park Police, a division of Interior, over its role and activities in the clearing of largely peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square on June 1.

Records

And in August, the watchdog said an aide to Bernhardt, Hubbel Relat, deliberately held back 253 “sensitive” records about the secretary during Bernhardt’s confirmation process. That direction from Relat led to the denial of records about Bernhardt that were part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

In investigating the Reilly matter, the IG agreed the director retaliated against the employee with the reassignment.

“This position had different responsibilities and working conditions,” the report reads. “The complainant did not request this reassignment, and no one discussed it with the complainant.”

“Although the position was the same series, grade, and pay as the previous position, we concluded that this reassignment qualified as a personnel action under the WPA,” the report says, citing the Whistleblower Protection Act, which guards against reprisal in the federal workforce.

Inspector general investigators said Reilly had a “particularly strong” motive to retaliate. 

“Reilly was the Director of the USGS, he was the subject of the complainant’s complaint, and he knew about the complaint,” the IG said in its report.

“Reilly also expressed displeasure about the fact that the complaint had been filed,” the report says. “During his interview, Reilly was asked about any issues he had with the complainant. He answered, ‘Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.’”

Reilly also asked his employees if there were other complaints against him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Office of Special Counsel, Congress or the IG office, according to the report. Staff who cooperated with the IG said Reilly wanted to know about other pending complaints so that he could “move them,” the IG said.

Reilly told the IG he “probably did” ask about other complaints but said he did not remember saying the employee had “weaponized the IG process.”

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a group generally critical of the Trump administration’s environmental policies, said Bernhardt should fire Reilly. “This investigation is a damning indictment of Reilly and the way Secretary Bernhardt runs the Interior Department,” Rokala said.

The Senate confirmed Reilly, a geologist, retired NASA astronaut and Navy veteran, to his position by voice vote in April 2018.

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