By Anthony Broadman
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said last week in a speech to oil industry representatives that “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”
He reportedly said Interior is a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over.”
His message was clear. For Zinke, federal public service means loyalty to Donald Trump. That kind of loyalty test and resulting purges of “disloyal” non-political public servants—often called “career staff”—are un-American.
It’s even worse against the backdrop of Zinke’s move-or-quit approach to remaking Interior and the BIA. This summer, Zinke reassigned around 50 senior executive employees—over one-fifth of all senior executive employees at Interior. If he didn’t want many of those 50 to quit, reassigning them all at once seems like a weird move.
The employees who are reassigned and targeted for disloyalty will of course personally bear the direct brunt of Zinke’s efforts. But purge-panic and yet more political intrigue at the BIA won’t serve Tribes and Tribal members.
Zinke’s reshuffling and termination of Interior employees might violate federal law; it would violate many state laws. “If the First Amendment protects a public employee from discharge based on what he has said, it must also protect him from discharge based on what he believes.” Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 515 (1980). But an Inspector General investigation and employment lawsuits will decide that question.
More importantly for Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, testing political loyalty of employees charged with ministerial execution of federal law smacks of the kind of abusive patronage practices that civil service statutes sought to prevent.
Zinke says he wants “to increase employee morale and ensure those of you on the front lines have the right tools, right resources, and flexibility to make the decisions to allow you to do your job.” Purges of intellectuals and sending disloyal employees ‘down to the countryside’ won’t accomplish this. Zinke’s latest loyalty comments only make his purge efforts look more like the Cultural Revolution reassigned employees suspect he is carrying out.
Anthony Broadman is a partner at Galanda Broadman PLLC. He can be reached at 206.321.2672, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via www.galandabroadman.com.