The ongoing clash between two scientists and government investigators questioning their work on sea ice and polar bears took a turn this week when agents with the federal Inspector General's office admitted that the men's published observations of dead polar bears were legitimate, according to their attorney.
But far from exonerating the scientists and wiping the slate clean, the investigative team put Dr. Jeffrey Gleason on notice that, like his one-time colleague Dr. Charles Monnett, they had referred his case to the Department of Justice's criminal division, said Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is defending both scientists. There was no explanation why.
After 18 months of inquiry, no charges have been filed and both men remain at a loss as to why they've been dragged through an intense inquiry damaging to their professional lives.
"The Inspector General tried to have them prosecuted and they still don't know what for," Ruch said in an interview Wednesday.
For Ruch, Wednesday's interview with Gleason is just one more episode in a strange saga that caused Gleason to leave his job out of frustration and Monnett to receive punitive backlash that remains in effect. Monnett still works for the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management in Alaska; Gleason has moved on to a position out of state.
Ruch's analysis of the agents' actions, if accurate, is troubling.
On the one hand, the acknowledgement that Gleason and Monnett did in fact see dead polar bears floating in the Arctic Ocean in 2006 is a relief, he said. Previous inquiries had suggested investigators thought the scientists had in some way misrepresented what they saw or incorrectly raised the issue of whether climate change and retreating sea ice contributed to the deaths.
According to Ruch, agents told Gleason that two other observers saw floating bears around the same time, which would seem to validate Gleason and Monnett's assertions. But Ruch is suspicious of the seeming-positive development.
"We don't think that there were two additional sightings. They are claiming that there are sightings that weren't recorded," he said.
It's a potential problem because it could also point to sloppy documentation because any sighting should have been recorded. Monnett was the program leader, and he would have know if his staff saw other dead, floating polar bears, Ruch said. For this reason Ruch questions whether the Inspector General agents actually received such reports.
Ruch has no idea why the agents would lie about such details. "We don't know if the IG is deliberately misstating information or doesn't understand the information it is receiving," he said, adding that not understanding is the greater evil.
In another odd development, the Inspector General agents questioned Gleason over a routing slip they had found in the trash. The piece of paper had previously been attached to paperwork the agents had asked Gleason to duplicate. The agents grilled Gleason about whether, by disposing of the routing slip – which had been attached to an internal poster on sea ice retreat that was later approved for publication – he was attempting to conceal something.
"I think we are at the point where this is the IG equivalent of a cop planting drugs on a suspect," Ruch said of the strange line of questioning his client received.
The off-topic forays suggest the investigation is collapsing, according to Ruch.
"We think it's imploding. This is a completely misguided witch hunt and every interview reinforces our alarm," he said.
The full transcript of Wednesday's interview of Gleason should be available in about one month. Meanwhile, PEER's press release on this latest development can be read here.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com