AD Main Menu

Polar bear scientist's suspension unrelated to research quality

Patti Epler

Federal investigators now say a respected Arctic scientist who was suspended from his job at an agency that regulates offshore oil development is under the microscope for his oversight of a recent polar bear study that has now been put on hold.

National Public Radio reports that Charles Monnett has received a notice, dated July 29, from the Interior Department's Inspector General that investigators will question him next week about his compliance with regulations that govern federal contracts, disclosure of personal relationships and preparation of the scope of work.

Monnet and the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility made national news last week with complaints that the veteran biologist had been told to clean out his office and not talk to colleagues without any reason given other than he was under investigation for "integrity issues."

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement officials, where Monnett works, would not say what the investigation was about, only that it did not involve a controversial 2006 article he published with a colleague, Jeffrey Gleason, that documented drowned polar bears and set off an international media storm over climate change and its effects on the Arctic.

Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper has published the transcript of an Inspector General interview with Gleason that was conducted in January, about a month before the investigators first met with Monnett. The investigators focus on the 2006 polar bear article in that interview, as they did in the first interview with Monnett, including possible mathematical miscalculations and whether the information should have appeared in Al Gore's environmental movie, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Clearly the investigators at that time were linking the political implications of the drowned polar bears and the impact the article had on federal officials later listing the bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and even more recent political debates.

From the interview:

(Investigator) ERIC MAY: And that's my point, because laws are changing based on your report and being referenced at least, or being used as support of something.

JEFFREY GLEASON: Right.

MAY: There's currently legislation in Alaska referencing your report, about how they conduct business up there, environmentally speaking, and so that's why I really pushed the numbers, because if the numbers are incorrect, then decisions are being made based on erroneous information.

GLEASON: Right, and I can't imagine that this single report is leading to all of this.

MAY: Well, it does have the emotional –

GLEASON: There's probably some stepping –

MAY: Well, you know legislatures; emotion carries a lot of weight in passing legislation.

GLEASON: Right. Well, like I said before, it was never my intent and never my expectation that it would have the impact that it's had.

Many questions to Gleason were aimed at whether the observations of the dead bears were accurate, and even whether the photos might have been doctored.

At the end of the interview, the lead investigator, Eric May, asked Gleason not to talk about the investigation and offered some hint as to what it was about.

MAY: One last thing, because this is an ongoing investigation, I need to ask you not to discuss what we discussed in here with anybody, particularly Mr. Monnett, you know, talking with us, because it is an ongoing investigation, okay?

GLEASON: Okay. And if I might ask, "investigating"?

MAY: The validity of the paper and the photos. Nothing? All right, that concludes our interview. It is now 12:42.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com