Washington, DC — A final report concluding a controversial, long-running investigation into a 2006 peer-reviewed journal article on drowned polar bears is circulating within the U.S. Department of Interior but is still unavailable to the two scientists who are its subject, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, the Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG), which conducted the probe, has refused to follow agency-wide scientific integrity policies, insisting that it is statutorily exempt from any restraints on its science-related activities.
The IG submitted its final report of investigation to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on June 27, 2012. The report recommends that BOEM take “administrative actions.” The IG has taken the position that the report will remain in “open” or unreleased status until BOEM makes a decision on whether to implement or reject the IG recommendations.
BOEM employs both Drs. Charles Monnett and Jeffrey Gleason, the scientists who observed and wrote about four drowned polar bears following a storm in 2004 in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology and are the subjects of this IG investigation. It is unclear whether the recommended “administrative actions” are disciplinary measures against the scientists or procedural changes in agency research projects or both.
The IG has asked BOEM to make a decision within 90 days but BOEM may ask for an extension. In point of fact, however, BOEM has the option of not responding at all. In another case where PEER sued the IG to force release of a final investigative report, the IG had held it in open status for 18 months.
“We urge Interior officials to quickly bring this outlandish ordeal to a close rather than letting it slog on for many months more,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization provides legal representation to both Drs. Monnett and Gleason, noting that the investigation began back in March 2010. “This investigation has been yet another profound embarrassment to the Interior Inspector General which does not appear anxious for this report to see the light of day.”
The senior IG agent involved in this report is Richard Larrabee, who has recently come to prominence for protesting the political motivation of acting Inspector General Mary Kendall in edits to a report about a call for a moratorium in offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP blowout. It was Larrabee’s work on a polar bear research contract with the University of Alberta which led to BOEM deciding to suspend Dr. Monnett with pay on July 18, 2011, due to the IG’s “on-going inquiry.” He was restored without explanation six weeks later on August 26th but was not returned to his earlier duties.
In July 2011, PEER filed a complaint with the Interior Scientific Integrity Officer, a post created to investigate complaints of scientific misconduct, against both the IG and BOEM charging that Dr. Monnett’s portfolio of critical Arctic research was being disrupted without justification, contrary to agency policies. The complaint sat without action for months. On July 19, 2012, Dr. Monnett was finally interviewed in connection with his complaint. At the outset of the interview, Dr. Ralph Morganweck, the former Interior Scientific Integrity Officer brought back as a retired annuitant to finish this case, explained that the several month delay was occasioned by the IG’s stance that the Interior scientific integrity rules did not apply to it because the Inspector General Act insulated it from any constraints on the scope or manner of its investigations. According the Dr. Morganweck, the IG prevailed in this internal debate and the PEER/Monnett complaint against the IG will not be pursued. The implications of this dispute extends government-wide, possibly undermining key provisions of recently adopted scientific integrity policies adopted in several agencies under an Obama directive.
“Regardless of the legal merits of its argument, the IG can and should voluntarily agree to coordinate with the Scientific Integrity Office to avoid duplicative or conflicting investigations into scientific matters,” Ruch added, pointing to prior statements by Kendall pledging to develop “protocols for coordination on such matters in the future” but no such protocol was ever attempted. “As this case amply demonstrates, the Inspector General’s Office has zero scientific expertise and has no business conducting misguided, ham-handed abusive probes of scientists or their work.”