Just last month, the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke came under fire for repeatedly disregarding diversity and now newly released documents show the agency’s reassignments under him disproportionately targeted Native Americans and women.
President Donald Trump's interior secretary told employees "diversity isn't important," according to three high-ranking interior officials from three different divisions. Zinke reportedly made several comments with a similar theme, saying "diversity isn't important," "I don't care about diversity" and "I don't really think that's important anymore."
Along with Zinke’s blatant disregard for diversity, the report that nearly a third of the senior DOI career officials got reassigned under him is also drawing criticism.
Last year, the department unexpectedly reassigned 33 senior executive staffers, of which 15 were minorities, according to the lawyer of one of the staffers who was moved. This major agency shuffling prompted Democratic lawmakers to demand an investigation into whether Zinke discriminated when he reassigned the officials.
Recently, the agency released emails and other documents that revealed nearly half of the 33 individuals reassigned in July 2017 are women and nearly a third are Native American. A few other individuals reassigned are African American and Latino.
The list included workers who have served in government for many years.
“I am particularly concerned that the employees affected were disproportionately minority,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the top Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “The diversity of a government workforce is a good thing and should be celebrated not denigrated, particularly for agencies such as the Department of the Interior, whose workforce should represent the broad geographic diversity of the people it serves.”
The documents were released after Katherine Atkinson, a lawyer for ousted DOI climate scientist Joel Clement, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
“When you compare it to the demographic data” for those working at the Interior Department, women and Native Americans were disproportionately affected, Atkinson explained.
“If Zinke had made his diversity comment in the private sector, it would have been one thing, but the Interior Department actually has a legal obligation to diversity,” she added. “Interior is supposed to prioritize hiring Native Americans, not pushing them out.”
Atkinson is indeed right, as per the DOI’s Indian Preference rules, the agency must give “absolute preference in employment to American Indians and Alaska Natives” in several of its offices. Also if Zinke’s actions were motivated by racism or political reasons, then he defied the federal law.
Several government agencies, including the Government Accountability Office, the Interior Department’s Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel are investigating the DOI reassignments.
Such revelations came amid increasing 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.
These lands are sacred to Native Americans and the secretary’s efforts to open it up endorsed Trump’s budget, slashing half a billion dollars from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Former government officials believe the reassignment of top Native-American staffers is a part of an effort to remove internal opposition to his plan.
“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,” said Bryan Newland, who served as a senior policy adviser at the Bay Mills Indian community under the Obama administration. “Those folks were moved to get them out of the way so that the oil- and gas-centric policy can move quickly.”
The Interior Department denied that Zinke has said anything about criticizing the need for diversity. However, a look at the race and gender of people who were moved tells a different story altogether.
Banner/Thumbnail: REUTERS/Carlos Barria