US lawsuits probe alleged bullying of civil servants by Trump administration

By on 05/05/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The Department of Energy’s renewable energy Research Support Facility is one of the world’s biggest net-zero office buildings – but now a court case has been launched to investigate allegations that DOE staff have been targeted by the Trump administration for their work on climate change issues. (Image Courtesy: Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

A non-profit watchdog body in the US is suing two federal departments in an attempt to secure information on alleged harassment by the Trump administration of civil servants who’ve worked on climate change and Obamacare.

United to Protect Democracy has filed lawsuits against the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Health and Human Services (HSS) over their refusal to respond to freedom of information (FOI) requests for documentation that could confirm or disprove alleged bullying of federal workers.

“Today we filed suit against two federal agencies and we are appealing the decision of a third in order to force the Trump Administration to come clean about its treatment of civil servants,” wrote United to Protect Democracy lawyer Ben Berwick in an online post. “We’re going to court because the integrity of the civil service is vital to our democracy and because the Trump Administration has already demonstrated a troubling pattern of bullying civil servants and trying to silence dissent.”

The DOE suit relates to FOI requests made by United to Protect Democracy after reports emerged in December 2016 that the Trump transition team was seeking information on civil servants at the department who had worked on climate change issues under the Obama administration. United to Protect Democracy has requested communications between and within the Trump transition team and the DOE to determine if “illegal retribution” had been planned or taken against any employees based on their work under the previous presidency.

In the case of the HHS, United to Protect Democracy has asked for similar information, this time to ensure no “acts of intimidation” have been made against civil servants in the department because of their views or work on the Affordable Care Act – so-called Obamacare – or reproductive rights.

The third case cited by Berwick relates to an FOI request lodged with the State Department over the possible discrimination against officials who opposed the Trump administration’s attempted ban on travellers from a number of majority-Muslim countries. In January, following a wave of opposition by State Department officials against the ban, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said dissenters should consider their position.

“By law, those agencies have 20 business days to respond,” Berwick wrote. “DOE and HHS haven’t [responded within that time]. Meanwhile the State Department has reserved the right to charge us potentially exorbitant fees to fulfil our request, even though the law requires them to waive fees if the information requested is in the public interest, which it is.”

United to Protect Democracy said it has filed complaints against the DOE and HHS in the US District Court for the District of Columbia and is appealing the State Department’s decision.

“Our goal is not only to discover if illegal acts are being planned or have taken place, but also for these complaints themselves to serve as a check against anyone within the administration who might be considering illegal acts against civil servants,” Berwick wrote.

Global Government Forum contacted the three departments in question for comment; the DOE and State Department responded to say that they couldn’t comment on ongoing legal action.

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See also:

US foreign service vacuum as Trump purges public servants

Republican legislators take new powers over public spending

Federal CFOs warn presidential transition may disrupt reform plans

Trump’s Cabinet unfolds amid rumour and turmoil


About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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