A nonprofit watchdog organization has filed suit against two federal agencies, seeking any documents concerning possible harassment of federal workers amid political suppression of their work. One of the agencies, the Department of Energy, requested information almost immediately after Donald Trump moved into the White House on workers who had links to climate change issues.
“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,” said a statement by Ben Berwick, a lawyer for United to Protect Democracy, the group that brought the suits.
Both suits — the other was filed against the Department of Health and Human Services — seek any information about possible intimidation or any purges of civil service employees who may have been working on projects unpopular with the Trump administration. United to Protect Democracy went to court after lawyers said the agencies ignored the organization’s request for pertinent documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
The DOE suit seeks any information revealing attempts to single out civil servants working on climate change issues. The HHS suit seeks any documents indicating targeting of employees working on projects linked to the Affordable Care Act or to abortion services and birth control issues. Both suits were filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
The court actions seek to protect the civil service from “purges, intimidation or politicization,” Wernick said in his statement. He described civil servants as “nonpartisan experts who do not serve at the pleasure of the president [who] provide continuity, expertise, and institutional knowledge across presidential transitions” and who provide a “bulwark against autocracy.”
In an early chilling attempt to apparently single out workers involved with issues opposed by the president, the DOE distributed a 74-question poll of workers in December. A number of the queries appeared to be attempts to identify civil service employees working on projects linked to climate change.
The survey asked for a list of all DOE workers or contractors who had attended any meetings of the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon. The group was started by the Obama administration to assess the effect of fossil fuel use on the environment. The DOE also demanded all documents and correspondence, including emails, concerning the meetings as part of the questionnaire. All information about the questionnaire is specifically requested in the suit against the DOE.
The questionnaire “suggests the Trump administration plans a witch hunt for civil servants who’ve simply been doing their jobs,” Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said in a statement at the time.
Trump has called climate change a “hoax.” Last week, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, scrubbed information regarding global warming from the EPA’s website.
Neither agency has commented on the lawsuits.