Interior Department chief of staff being removed from post after indoor party fiasco

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The White House is removing the Interior Department’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, who recently planned a 50-person indoor party at the agency that the White House ordered canceled, and is moving her to a senior counselor job at the agency, according to two Biden administration officials.

The White House’s Cabinet affairs office ordered that party, which was intended to celebrate Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s confirmation, to be called off amid fears it could become a superspreader event, as POLITICO first reported late last week.

There were also concerns about the political optics of holding the event as the Biden administration urges the American public to continue to take the coronavirus seriously.

Senior Biden administration officials voiced their reservations about the event, which was going to be held in the Interior Department’s library, and the White House then stepped in before invitations could be sent out.

One Biden administration official said that “the party was the thing that broke the camel’s back” and was the “latest lapse in judgment” on Van der Heide’s part in her new job, which she started on Jan. 20. The official also said that the party planning expedited the job switch, which had been in the works before the kerfuffle. A White House official said that it was always intended for Van der Heide to move to a different role after setting up the department. Another administration official said that unspecified other issues precipitated the move.

A White House official had told Van der Heide to cease planning for the party before March 8, but she still sought catering estimates after she was told that the party shouldn’t happen, according to one of the administration officials.

Van der Heide will now be a senior counselor at the Interior Department, and a White House spokesperson said that Lawrence Roberts, who was the head of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs at the end of the Obama administration, will be the new chief of staff.

“Jennifer Van der Heide is an invaluable member of the Biden Administration and the leadership at the Department of the Interior,” said White House spokesperson Vedant Patel. “She will continue serving in the administration and Secretary Haaland as a Senior Counselor within the Department. Larry Roberts, who previously served under President Obama and has extensive knowledge of the Interior Department, will assume the Chief of Staff role.”

Roberts, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, most recently was special counsel at the law firm Jenner & Block, and earlier in his career worked at the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Van der Heide didn’t respond to a request for comment. An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment.

A White House official said these types of moves are not uncommon early on in an administration as the Presidential Personnel Office tries to make sure that appointees are in roles that best serve their agency, agency head, the president and the American public.

In 2015, the Office of Congressional Ethics said that Van der Heide, when she was chief of staff for former Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), appeared to run afoul of ethical guidelines meant to separate government activities from campaign activities, although the House Ethics Committee didn’t pursue any action in the matter. In August 2017, she then became a senior adviser for Haaland’s congressional campaign before becoming Haaland’s congressional chief of staff.

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