Joel Clement, a former federal official who blew the whistle on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s arbitrary transfer of dozens of Senior Executive Service (SES) employees last summer, has joined the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as a senior fellow with the Center’s Arctic Initiative. In his role as top advisor for climate change to the Secretary of Interior for seven years, Clement led a research team and was outspoken on the many challenges Native Alaskans face, including sea level rise, ice melt, and loss of habitat. His sudden, unexplained transfer to the department’s office that receives oil royalty checks was widely viewed as a retaliatory, hostile reaction to Clement’s firm views on climate change threats by an administration filled with anti-science climate deniers. From his new perch at Harvard, Clement will again have a prominent platform from which to warn us all of the grave dangers the Arctic region faces in a climate-changed world.
Clement is a scientist, not an accountant: his arbitrary reassignment to a job he was not qualified to do is a common tactic exercised by political appointees to get rid of civil servants they dislike or whose political views don’t mesh with their own. Alerted to potential unlawful whistleblower retaliation, outside watchdog groups, including GAP, began rallying around Clement and protesting the reassignments. Secretary Zinke all but confirmed suspicions of illegal wrongdoing when he testified before Congress that he would use “reassignments and separation incentives” to eliminate unwanted employees—a thinly veiled admission of politically motivated actions intended to force resignations. Clement filed a still-pending complaint in July 2017 with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). In an accompanying Washington Post editorial, Clement lambasted a presidential administration that “chooses silence over science,” and forced a “scientist, policy expert, and civil servant” to become a whistleblower. Though he made a good faith effort to remain at DOI in the new position, he ultimately resigned in October 2017, citing the unjustifiable time and cost to taxpayers required to train him to undertake tasks for which he had no experience or skill. As a scientist committed to improving lives through evidence-based policy, Clement calculated he could accomplish more outside of government than in a job wholly outside of his expertise and interest.
Joel Clement’s courage was widely lauded. Clement’s unfair, unlawful treatment drew the attention of Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of 13 leading scholars concerned about abuses of the civil service system for political purposes, including contributions from staff at Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, and the Government Accountability Project (GAP). GAP has written about Clement’s story on many different occasions, highlighting the questionable nature of the DOI’s involuntary reassignments. A report issued by the DOI Inspector General charged with investigating the reassignments found, unsurprisingly, that Interior Department leadership “did [not] consistently apply the reasons it stated” for reassignment and “did not gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments.”
Despite supportive coverage of his story by The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, CBS, CNN, PBS Newshour, NBC, Bloomberg, and more, Clement ultimately became a “self-employed whistleblower and advocate.” He will be able to continue his advocacy now as a scientist with the Arctic Initiative at the Belfer Center, conducting research in his field of expertise regarding the “rapidly changing, environmentally sensitive Arctic region,” an area in critical need of urgent measures to protect the inhabitants from dangerous climate impacts.
Clement’s resignation represented a loss for the federal government, the taxpayer, and for science at-large. His noble efforts, after all, were directly aligned with the department’s mandated mission: “protecting[ing] and manag[ing] the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage… [by] provid[ing] scientific and other information about these resources.” Clement reluctantly though resolutely joined the growing list of other competent, valuable federal employees who have quit in protest under the Trump administration.
As reported in New York Magazine, many career employees today must actively wrestle with the decision to stay or leave their jobs. This widespread dilemma points to troubling failures by the federal government to address serious problems important to the public interest, compounded by unfamiliarity with existing whistleblower protections that serve to empower federal employees to blow the whistle on serious workplace wrongdoing and illegality. Some are also inhibited from speaking out knowing that whistleblower protection laws offer legal remedies only after reprisal occurs. Clement publicly protested a cabinet member who, instead of addressing his message regarding a serious problem that should concern us all and that is central to the mission of the agency, sought to silence the messenger. Clement’s disclosure was both legal and admirable, but, in return, he lost his job; In the face of such blatant government wrongdoing, Clement was faced with some tough choices: continued silence, a premature exit from his career path, or calling out his employers and risking reprisal that whistleblowers experience all too often.
Clement’s new appointment vindicates his actions and highlights the importance of researching climate change and its effects on marginalized communities. Additionally, it acknowledges Clement’s skillful leadership and effectiveness as a vocal expert. Henry Lee, director of the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program praised Clement in a press release: “Joel has demonstrated leadership in public service through his commitment to protecting ecosystems and people from the threat of climate change, while setting high standards of scientific integrity.” Clement has become a beacon of hope, inspiring other federal employees to choose ethics and accountability over complacency. What Secretary Zinke and President Trump need to know is that employees have the legally protected right to expose wrongdoing free from reprisal, and that, for doing the right thing, whistleblowers are, by and large, appreciated for their selfless actions.
Federal employees interested in understanding their legal rights and low-risk options for blowing the whistle, as well as public interest advocates and journalists who wish to work with whistleblowers safely and effectively, will be interested in GAP’s new series of whistleblower guides, posted online here.