Interior Department watchdog raps transfers of top executives

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department watchdog on Wednesday criticized the reassignment of more than two dozen senior staff, saying political appointees shunted the executives into new jobs without leaving a paper trail or informing them beforehand.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke testifies in front of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

The inspector general’s report raises fresh questions about the agency’s management under Republican Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The onetime Montana congressman has faced criticism over his travel and as a key player in the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections and boost development of federal lands.

The investigation into the transfer of 27 of the department’s roughly 227 career executives from June to October 2017 said that it was done without documenting plans or reasons for the job shifts.

Meetings by the department’s six-member Executive Resources Board, all political appointees, were done without “minutes, notes, voting or decision records, or other documentation ... other than photographs of poster boards,” the report said.

None of the members of the board, then headed by Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, could say who had ordered the reassignments, it said.

Board members did not consult with the executives or their supervisors about their decisions. They instead relied on short biographies submitted to a personnel official after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, it said.

A dozen of the executives interviewed said their job shifts might have been related to previous work assignments, including climate change, energy, or conservation, the report said.

Seventeen said they thought they were being shifted because of a conflict with Interior officials or because they were close to retirement.

But board members said 18 of the executives were transferred to bring fresh expertise to new areas, the report said.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment. The report said that the department had resolved four issues and implemented one solution.

The report triggered criticism from Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who had requested the investigation.

The reassignments without following procedures “is one more screw-up at taxpayer expense by the Department of the Interior,” she said in a statement.

Zinke has been dogged by the release of details of his use of charter planes and helicopters for travel, as well as receipts showing the department spent more than $130,000 to install doors at his office at a time of proposed budget cuts and fee hikes at national parks.

Reporting by Ian Simpson