Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.
The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called "burrowing" by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs.
Similar efforts are taking place at other agencies. Two political hires at the Labor Department have already secured career posts there, and one at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to make the switch.
Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants. Six political appointees to the Senior Executive Service, the government's most prestigious and highly paid employees, have received approval to take career jobs at the same level. Fourteen other political, or "Schedule C," appointees have also been approved to take career jobs. One candidate was turned down by OPM and two were withdrawn by the submitting agency.
The personnel moves come as Bush administration officials are scrambling to cement in place policy and regulatory initiatives that touch on issues such as federal drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, mountaintop mining and fisheries limits.
The practice of placing political appointees into permanent civil service posts before an administration ends is not new. In its last 12 months, the Clinton administration approved 47 such moves, including seven at the senior executive level. Federal employees with civil service status receive job protections that make it very difficult for managers to remove them.
Most of the personnel shifts have been done on a case-by-case basis, but Interior Solicitor David L. Bernhardt moved to place six deputies in senior agency positions with one stroke, including two who have repeatedly attracted controversy. Robert D. Comer, who was Rocky Mountain regional solicitor, was named to the civil service post of associate solicitor for mineral resources. Matthew McKeown, who served as deputy associate solicitor for mineral resources, will take Comer's place in what is also a career post. Both had been converted from political appointees to civil service status.
In a report dated Oct. 13, 2004, Interior's inspector general singled out Comer in criticizing a grazing agreement that the Bureau of Land Management had struck with a Wyoming rancher, saying Comer used "pressure and intimidation" to produce the settlement and pushed it through "with total disregard for the concerns raised by career field personnel." McKeown -- who as Idaho's deputy attorney general had sued to overturn a Clinton administration rule barring road-building in certain national forests -- has been criticized by environmentalists for promoting the cause of private property owners over the public interest on issues such as grazing and logging.
One career Interior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his position, said McKeown will "have a huge impact on a broad swath of the West" in his new position, advising the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service on "all the programs they implement." Comer, the official added, will help shape mining policy in his new assignment.
"It is an attempt by the outgoing administration to limit as much as possible [the incoming administration's] ability to put its policy imprint on the Department of Interior," the official said.
In a Nov. 13 memo obtained by The Washington Post, Bernhardt wrote that he was reorganizing his division because the associate solicitors' original status as political appointees undermined the division's effectiveness.
"This has resulted in frequent turnover in those positions, often with an attendant loss in productivity and management continuity in these Divisions, despite the best efforts of the newly-appointed Associate Solicitors," he wrote.
But environmental advocates, and some rank-and-file Interior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting their careers, said the reassignments represent the Bush administration's effort to leave a lasting imprint on environmental policy.
"What's clear is they could have done this during the eight years they were in office. Why are they doing it now?" said Robert Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, an advocacy group. "It's pretty obvious they're trying to leave in place some of their loyal foot soldiers in their efforts to reduce environmental protection."
In an interview yesterday, Bernhardt reiterated that he thinks the move is in the government's long-term interest.
"I believe these management decisions will strengthen the professionalism of the Office of the Solicitor and result in greater service to the Department of the Interior," he said. "However, the next solicitor and the department's management team are free to walk a different path."
One senior Interior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, said an incoming interior secretary or solicitor could create new political positions upon taking office and could shift Senior Executive Service officials to comparable jobs within a few months. As a general rule, career SES employees may be reassigned involuntarily within their current commuting area within 15 days, and beyond their commuting area within 60 days, but they retain their lucrative and permanent government posts. When a new agency head is appointed, he or she must wait 120 days before reassigning career SES officials.
Outside groups are trying to monitor these moves but are powerless to reverse them. Alex Bastani, a representative at the Labor Department for the American Federation of Government Employees, said it took months for that agency even to acknowledge that two of its Bush appointees, Carrie Snidar and Brad Mantel, had gotten civil service posts.
"They're trying to burrow into these career jobs, and we're very upset," Bastani said. "Everyone should have an opportunity to apply for these positions. And certainly career people who don't have partisan bent and have 10 or 15 years in their respective fields should have a shot at these positions."
Kerry Weems, acting chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said he discourages political staff from moving into career slots. "It typically doesn't work out for either party," he said. Even though Weems is a career staffer, he expects to leave the administration when the Obama team takes over.
Alphonso Jackson, who was HUD secretary under President Bush, warned his political appointees not to try to burrow in when the administration changed. But one of his regional directors objected to that flat-out prohibition, according to union leaders at HUD, and has told his colleagues that he has been promised first crack at a career position.
Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.