And Now Ryan Zinke is Under Scrutiny for Discriminatory Practices at Interior

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Secretary Zinke is back to giving Montana a black eye, this time for a series of statements and actions that seem so transparently discriminatory that members of Congress want to investigate his office’s hiring and retention practices.

Alice Ollstein, writing at Talking Points Memo, says that Zinke is under investigation for his mass reassignment of staffers at the Department of the Interior not simply because it was an obvious effort to get rid of effective, long-serving staff, but because those reassignments disproportionately affected people of color. It’s bad enough that Interior is facing a lawsuit and members of both houses of Congress want an investigation:

In a letter sent Wednesday to the Government Accountability Office, obtained early by TPM, a group of Senate and House Democrats say they’re concerned that the controversial reassignments — already the subject of multiple investigations — are disproportionately affecting employees who “belong to a protected class.”

It’s illegal to make federal personnel decisions based on race, gender, age, religion, or disability.

The congressional letter comes days after the attorney representing some of the targeted employees in the Senior Executive Service (SES), the top rank of non-political federal employees, claimed that nearly half of those reassigned were minorities.

The reassignment of so many people of color hasn’t happened in a vacuum. As CNN reported last week, Zinke has repeatedly told staffers at Interior that he “doesn’t care about diversity” and that “it doesn’t matter anymore. While some at Interior feel that Zinke’s remarks are little more than the kind of talking point he’s so fond of, others believe that Zinke’s actions have deliberately targeted minorities and women:

The officials who spoke to CNN about Zinke’s comments worry the reassignments may be a sign that what he said wasn’t just a talking point.
“If you look at the actions he’s taken, they are unbalanced in regards to minorities and women,” said the minority manager who was upset by Zinke’s diversity comment. “If you look at the people who were moved and you look at their race or gender, it’s very obvious that this is a person that does not embrace the concept of diversity.”

Zinke’s even taken to rewriting the Department of Interior’s web page devoted to issues of diversity into a photo of himself. What used to contain a list of 20 resources for African-Americans is now devoted to picture of the Secretary with one link to a site called “Blacks in Government.”

Finally, Ollstein reminds us of the odd remark Zinke made months ago when he claimed that only 70% of Interior was “loyal to the flag.” It turns out that the staff working at Interior is almost exactly 70% white, leading one Senate aide to ask a pretty reasonable question:

“In light of this, I think it’s fair to ask Secretary Zinke which 30 percent are you talking about?”

The Department of the Interior did not respond to TPM’s question as to whether the 30 percent referenced by Zinke was referring to the Department’s people of color.

It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see that the Secretary isn’t acting in the interests of people of color, given his past association with a racist hate group, his efforts to undermine Indian sovereignty, and his buffoonish performance addressing a Congresswoman of Japanese descent with a greeting in the Japanese language. It’s even more disturbing when one considers that many in Washington see Zinke’s efforts to unmake the federal bureaucracy as a test run for other agencies:

When I spoke with him, Clement emphasized that his case is about way more than just his own career and the careers of the few dozen of his colleagues who were also pushed out of their roles. If the various investigating bodies uphold Zinke’s move, he warned, it could give the green light for a government-wide purge.

“The concern is that if you let this one fly, they won’t hold back,” he said. “They’ll exercise their authority to move people around however they want.”

We need to elect a new Congress this November, one that will investigate the myriad scandals surrounding Secretary Zinke, especially one that has the potential to undermine Interior for years to come and harm federal employees for simply not being the kind of people Ryan Zinke cares about.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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