Washington, DC — During its lengthy investigation into a peer-reviewed journal article on polar bears drowning following a storm, the Interior Office of Inspector General (IG) unsuccessfully asked the Justice Department four times to open a criminal prosecution against the lead scientist author, according to a document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Not only were the increasingly frantic IG’s charges rejected by Justice but the Interior agency employing the scientist dismissed any allegations relating to the integrity of the research and the scientist’s research activities.
In late December, the IG first revealed that its nearly three-year fruitless pursuit of Dr. Charles Monnett, a senior scientist with the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM), had been reopened although its final report was issued last September. The IG has not stated the reasons for the unusual action of reopening a closed case, except to say that it is awaiting BOEM’s response to unspecified new recommendations.
The new open status is slowing the ability of PEER to obtain documents relating to the controversial IG probe under the Freedom of Information Act. Under an appeal, however, PEER managed to obtain the basis for the IG seeking criminal referrals against Dr. Monnett after the IG initially refused to disclose the information. The four separate charges resemble the legal version of “everything but the kitchen sink” –
- One rejected charge was false official statements in connection with the peer review process for the publication of a 2006 observational note by the journal Polar Ecology;
- Another un-pursued charge was criminal conflict of interest in connection with the award of a joint research contract with the University of Alberta on polar bear transnational migrations; and
- Twice, once at the beginning of the investigation and a second time at the end, the IG sought to have Dr. Monnett prosecuted for supposedly unauthorized emails he sent to other researchers in 2007-8. The second time, the IG maintained the emails amounted to theft of government property.
“This new information underlines how irresponsible and misguided the Inspector General has been in its attempt to ‘get’ a target while trampling over obvious truths,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the IG is still deciding whether to release the details of its criminal referrals. “Especially dangerous is this clumsy attempt to criminalize the academic peer review process.”
In rejecting the IG’s criminal theories, the Justice Department concluded that administrative avenues were more appropriate if misconduct actually occurred. The IG, however, appears not to have considered administrative reforms, such as clarifying procedures for sole source scientific research contracts.
The only action resulting from the IG’s strenuous efforts was a letter of reprimand against Dr. Monnett for the more than 5 year-old emails – a subject no one ever brought up with him previously yet they had been identified two years before the IG began its probe back in 2010. PEER is also representing Dr. Monnett in a legal challenge to that reprimand as violating the Whistleblower Protection Act. That initial complaint is pending before the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
“If every unauthorized email is theft of government property in the IG’s eyes, then the jails will soon be full of hapless public servants who thought their government was supposed to be transparent,” Ruch added, pointing out that the investigation began in order to plug leaks about Arctic offshore drilling concerns by agency scientific staff. “In frustration, the agency unleashed an overeager IG to bring down someone on its perceived enemy’s list. This case embodies a perversion of the Inspector General’s mission.”