AD Main Menu

Is polar bear scientist Monnett still under investigation?

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes photo

Polar bear scientist Charles Monnett's long-running entanglement with bureaucratic investigations into the quality and ethics of his work may not be over, despite a finding by his government employer in September that he could return to work. At the time, Monnett was delivered the equivalent of a slap on the hand -- a written reprimand for sharing work emails with environmentalists.

He was cleared of more damning allegations that his science was bad, his motives questionable. Yet according to attorney Jeff Ruch, who has represented Monnett throughout the investigation, the Office of the Inspector General has confirmed the case remains open. Agents with the Inspector General's office conducted the inquiry into Monnett's work and last fall returned their analysis to the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM), Monnett's employer. The bureau determined there could be evidence of criminal wrongdoing and scientific misconduct, but left it to BOEM to decide how to interpret the Inspector General's findings and what, if anything, to do about it.

Intense scrutiny of Monnett at the hands of government investigators quickly became an ongoing saga with political implications. When the investigation began, Monnett worked for the Minerals Management Service, an agency that not only conducted research into marine mammals, but which also permitted oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters. Tensions were growing among scientists who felt their observations were being swept under the rug to ease the permitting process.

Polar bears: powerful symbol

Meanwhile, the prospect of drowning polar bears became a powerful symbol. Monnett and a co-author, Dr. Jeffrey Gleason, made brief reference to drowned bears in a 2006 journal article. During a 2004 overflight to survey bowhead whales in Alaska's arctic. Monnett and his colleagues witnessed what they believed were four dead bears floating in the Arctic Ocean. It was the first published documentation of dead bears at sea, and Monnett and Dr. Jeffrey Gleason surmised that the number of dead bears would increase as sea ice melted. At some point during the investigation, Monnett's methods for documenting the deaths and putting them into context became a target of the inquiry. Investigators, who were vague during much of the process, would only say scientific misconduct, and perhaps miscalculations, were one aspect of concern regarding the scientist's work.

The prospect of drowning polar bears was a powerful symbol environmentalists latched onto to make their case that Arctic development should be thwarted.

Climate change eventually was perceived as a big enough threat to warrant listing polar bears as a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act. A power struggle was underway over whether Arctic species were truly imperiled, and whether the search for oil offshore might imperil them further. Bad science on any side had the potential to be a political nightmare.

Ruch, who serves as executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he only learned in late December that the investigation into Monnett remains open. Thinking the matter closed, he'd gone on to file a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, claiming that the reprimand against Monnett violated whistleblower protections. Ruch believes the emails Monnett revealed outside the workplace contained evidence of government wrongdoing, and that it is improper for Monnett to be disciplined for bringing wrongdoing into the open. The complaint is pending.

Closed issue?

Whatever bureaucratic wrangling is going on behind the scenes, BOEM maintains the matter remains a closed issue. “BOEM considers the matter of these allegations resolved,” BOEM spokesperson Maureen Clark said via email Tuesday.

In a statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released Tuesday about the ongoing situation, Ruch said the Inspector General didn't reveal much about what's going on, “except to say that it is awaiting BOEM’s response to unspecified new recommendations.”

According to a source close to the investigation, who asked to remain anonymous because he or she is not authorized to speak about the matter, said the Inspector General's office did request BOEM take a second look at the report. A scientific integrity panel should have conducted BOEM's review of the report, which didn't happen, and BOEM has until early February to follow that protocol, the source said.

It's an ironic twist, because one of the gripes Ruch has had from the beginning is that agents with the Inspector General's office conducted their investigation on their own, without input from a scientific-integrity panel. Early in the president's first term in office, the Obama administration had pledged to free scientists from the ills of political pressure and personal agendas, and to implement a scientific integrity review process that would insulate scientists and their work from backlash and manipulation. Ruch failed to convince the government to allow such a panel to investigate the initial allegations lodged against his client. And yet now, it is just such a panel in whose hands the final verdict on the matter may teeter.

Ruch suspects it was BOEM that first asked the Inspector General to go after Monnett, angered over a string of information leaks on politically sensitive topics during a time when there was a push for oil-and-gas lease sales. Recently, through a Freedom of Information Act request, he's learned that the Inspector General tried but failed to convince the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Monnett on matters ranging from false statements related to the 2006 drowned polar bear article, to conflict of interest regarding a research contract, to the wrongful dissemination of government emails.

“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,” Ruch said in Tuesday's prepared release.

'Witch hunt'

Because Monnett never lost pay and has been allowed to return to work, his avenues for remedy are limited, Ruch said. But Ruch said his client hopes a precedent will keep other scientists from enduring the experience, something Ruch likens to a “witch hunt.”

He also wants a more defined process for evaluating scientific integrity matters, as well as legal status for scientific work and the scientists that create it so that their findings cannot be ignored. He also seeks to return a job where he can resume scientific work free from interference.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com