Interview with 2017 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate Joel Clement -- Part II
By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team
Here is Part II of our interview with Interior Department whistleblower Joel Clement. Mr. Clement is a former federal executive and public lands policy expert with a background in climate and energy. After publicly disclosing how climate change affects Alaska Native communities, Mr. Clement was reassigned to an accounting position for which he had no experience. Believing he was a victim of unlawful employment retaliation, Mr. Clement spoke out in a Washington Post piece entitled I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration. Here is how Mr. Clement details first-hand his experience as a whistleblower, his advice to others, and his visions for what comes next.
Whistleblower Insider: Were you concerned you were going to be retaliated against for speaking about climate change?
Joel: No, I wasn’t actually. Because I was dealing and working on climate adaptation issues, addressing impacts that were already happening and were putting the health and safety of Americans at risk, I didn’t think that this work would have to stop. I knew that the folks at EPA would be hemmed in because they work on climate mitigation and greenhouse gases, but that’s not what we do. We address impacts as we see them now and particularly if they relate to natural resources and American health and safety. So, I guess naïvely I didn’t expect that I would be retaliated against.
Whistleblower Insider: Was there a particular moment when you decided you needed to go public about your situation? Or is that something you were considering for awhile?
Joel: Well, you know, I had been very public all along and I think when the president rescinded the North Bering Sea Climate Resilience executive order that Obama had signed the December before, I realized that the adaptation and resilience work was definitely going to be under scrutiny. That was months before I was reassigned and that’s the point at which I really wanted to go public.
When the time came to blow the whistle very publicly because there was no question in my mind that this needed to be a public process. People needed to know what was happening at DOI and in the administration more broadly.
Whistleblower Insider: Did you have any fears about how going public might affect your friends or family?
Joel: No, actually, I really didn’t. I knew it was the right thing to do. I knew that I needed to speak truth to power, in the moment, as loudly as I could. As long as I was being accurate and sticking to what I know to be the truth, that didn’t bother me at all. In fact, subsequently, my first day back in work after doing that, I was nervous about how I would be received by my colleagues. But they received me with open arms and were extremely supportive. I mean just non-stop, people coming up and shaking my hand and coming into my office and saying thanks and that this made them feel empowered.
That was a pleasant surprise, because you just don’t know what will happen.
Whistleblower Insider: Have you experienced any backlash from writing the op-ed?
Joel: I still have yet to hear from any of the political appointees. So there’s nothing from them. The staff at the new job that I had been assigned to were extremely supportive and bending over backwards to help me integrate into the office even though it was a job that I was not suited for. There was nothing negative at all taking place in the building other than the ongoing actions of the political team, which seemed to be extremely non-transparent and extremely dismissive of career staff. Even Secretary Zinke, himself, with his ludicrous comments about loyalty in the agency. That was all going on in the background, but I never faced any backlash.
Whistleblower Insider: Is our understanding correct that you were reassigned to an accounting role?
Joel: More precisely, it’s the office that collects and disperses the royalty checks from the oil and gas industry. So, not really just an accounting and auditing office but they collect and disperse the revenue from oil, gas and mining…which added insult to injury. In my view, the goal of my reassignment was to get me to quit, so they knew what they were doing when they reassigned me.
Whistleblower Insider: That seems so brazen. It’s almost as if they intentionally chose a position that would run as counter as possible to what you’d previously been working on.
Joel: Yeah, there’s no question in my mind that that was the case.
Whistleblower Insider: If you could go back, is there anything you would change?
Joel: The only thing I can think of that I would have done differently is to try much harder to talk with the leadership at the agency and find out what was behind this. As much as we all know they were trying to get me to quit, I wanted to challenge them on that, face to face, and did not have the opportunity to do that. Particularly, Secretary Zinke, I would have loved to be in an elevator with Zinke before I left so I could challenge him on this and ask him to resign for the misuse of authority that’s happening under his watch.
Whistleblower Insider: Do you have any future plans that you’re focused on or things you would like to do in the future?
Joel: I don’t have it all mapped out, but I do plan to continue to work with folks both within DOI and outside DOI to expose the abuses of authority, non-transparency, and the ways that special interests are undermining DOI. So, I’ll be continuing that work and talking about the importance of addressing this climate change issue head on – and confronting this administration as frequently as I can for their lack of effort in dealing with this.
Whistleblower Insider: Do you have any advice you’d give to people who are maybe thinking about coming forward based on your experience?
Joel: I have to say it has been, overall, the best thing I’ve ever done. I know it’s the right thing to do and I know that there is some risk, but we have laws in place, as you know, to protect whistleblowers. My advice to current employees has been, and will continue to be, that if someone asks you to do something that goes against your organization’s mission or if you’re asked not to do a job that’s important to the health and safety of Americans, you should call them out on it. You’ve got to blow the whistle. It’s the right thing to do. There are enough laws in place to protect you if you do. I could not have sat on this without saying something and I think it’s important that people say and do what they can. There are jobs out there. There are other ways to get by. I know it’s intimidating. But I recommend taking action when possible.