The Interior Department reassigned 27 senior executives "without a written plan or clear criteria, and without consulting the departmental leadership," according to a department inspector general report released Wednesday.
And because there was "no documented action plan," the IG was "prevented from making a clear determination whether or not" the department "met the legal requirements" to make the changes, the report says.
CNN reported in March that 33 senior executive staffers at Interior, 15 of whom were minorities, were reassigned unexpectedly in 2017, and some subsequently filed complaints.
Democrats had been concerned it was an effort to either silence the executives, force them to resign or punish them after whistleblower Joel Clement came forward to express his concern.
In August of last year, CNN reported that Clement, who was previously the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at Interior, was reassigned to an accounting job. Clement argued that he had been retaliated against in a complaint lodged with the US Office of Special Counsel. In October 2017, Clement resigned from the department.
CNN reported last month that Zinke has repeatedly said he won't focus on diversity, citing multiple employees at the department. Three high-ranking officials told CNN that the interior secretary had made comments along the lines of "diversity isn't important" and "I don't care about diversity," instead emphasizing that he wants to find "the right person for the right job." Interior denied that the secretary had made those comments.
Clement said Wednesday that he is "stunned by the level of incompetence that this report describes; there were so few records kept that the inspector general can't even make a determination of the legality of the reassignment actions."
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement that "the evaluation confirmed the Department's long-held view that the ERB has the lawful authority to reassign SES Members and has done so here," referring to the Executive Resources Board and Senior Executive Service members at the department.
Swift added that "the Department appreciates the IG making recommendations on the board's effectiveness. As outlined by the Deputy Secretary in his response to the IG, the ERB has already adopted and is implementing best practices and has moved aggressively to better communicate its vision and plan going forward."