Washington, DC — The federal scientist whose sightings of drowned polar bears galvanized public understanding of climate change in the Arctic has retired as part of a settlement of his whistleblower complaint against the U.S. Department of Interior. The agreement, posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), ends a benighted attempt to officially punish and intimidate scientists for the political implications of their work.
Dr. Charles M. Monnett, a senior scientist with Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), was subjected to a heavy-handed, baseless and prolonged three-year investigation by its Office of Inspector General (IG) into unspecified allegations about the peer-reviewed observational note published in a 2006 issue of the journal Polar Ecology. Despite numerous interrogations, searches of tens of thousands of emails and four separate criminal referrals (all rejected) against Monnett and his coauthor, BOEM found no scientific error by either scientist.
Following its inability to identify any scientific error, BOEM ultimately issued Dr. Monnett a letter of reprimand, the lowest level of discipline, for a series of five emails he sent to outside individuals in 2007 and 2008 – actions the agency had known about since before the IG investigation but never acted upon. Through PEER, Dr. Monnett filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on several grounds, including that the emails documented BOEM legal violations in trying to ram through Arctic offshore drilling permits that were later thrown out in court.
Under terms of an agreement mediated through OSC’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Program:
- The letter of reprimand has been withdrawn;
- Dr. Monnett was given a Cooperative Conservation Award from the Interior Secretary which he won back in 2010 but from which his name had inexplicably been removed;
- Interior paid Dr. Monnett $100,000;
- Dr. Monnett retired on November 15th. after more than 20 years of federal service;
- Dr. Monnett agreed to “not reapply to any position with the Department of Interior or any of its Bureaus for a period of five (5) years from the effective date of this Settlement Agreement”; and
- Dr. Monnett withdrew a pending lawsuit and administrative appeal filed under the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act for documents relating to the IG investigation and the role of top BOEM officials.
“This agency attempted to silence me, discredit me and our work and send a chilling message to other scientists at a key time when permits for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic were being considered. They failed on the first two goals, but I believe that what they did to me did make others afraid to speak up, even internally. Following over two years of hell for me and my family, my name has been cleared and the accusations against the scientific findings in our paper have been shown to be groundless” Monnett said. “However, I can no longer in good conscience work for an agency that promotes dishonesty, punishes those who actually stand up for scientific integrity, and that cannot tolerate scientific work not pre-shaped to serve its agenda.”
Prior to the IG investigation, Dr. Monnett had overseen a $60 million portfolio of cutting edge research aimed to answer key questions needed to evaluate the effects of oil and gas on marine mammals and pristine Arctic ecosystems. Since that time, his studies have all been reassigned and the flow of important new research through BOEM has largely ceased.
“Dr. Monnett made it clear that he wanted to return to meaningful scientific work again but could not foresee that being possible anymore inside Interior,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization provided legal representation to Dr. Monnett. “If there was any doubt, the five-year employment ban on such a well-qualified, award-winning scientist makes it unmistakably clear that independent scientific views are not welcome in any corner of the Department of Interior.”