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Scientist's administrative leave has 'nothing do with' polar bear study

Patti Epler

The federal agency that this month suspended a veteran scientist now says its case has nothing to do with an article he wrote about polar bears that apparently drowned, permitting issues or scientific integrity.

Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist who oversaw numerous Arctic research projects for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, was put on administrative leave July 18. The agency's letter to him says Monnett will remain on leave pending an Inspector General's  investigation into "integrity issues."

On Thursday, Monnett's story made national news when Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- a nonprofit that aims to protect government employees who work in environmental agencies -- filed a complaint on his behalf with the U.S. Interior Department and linking the investigation to a 2006 article by Monnett and another scientist that documented polar bears drowning in the Beaufort Sea two years earlier.

The article captivated the public's attention and in no small way has served to make the polar bear the icon of climate change and its effects on the Arctic environment in particular.

Monnett contends that neither BOEMRE or the Inspector General's office will tell him why he is being investigated. However, in a February interview with IG investigators, they questioned him about the genesis of the article and his observations of the dead polar bears.

On Friday, BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz sent an email to Alaska Dispatch saying:

Although I cannot speak further regarding the Office of the Inspector General's investigation, I feel it's important to correct the inaccurate narrative that has been given to you (and is reported in your most recent article). This additional piece can only be attributed to a "source familiar with the administrative action," given the nature of the ongoing investigation. I do not anticipate being able to further communicate on this ongoing issue, but will keep your contact info in case anything changes:

The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong.

RELATED: Alaska scientist described how he discovered 'drowned polar bears'

After Dispatch refused to accept her assertions anonymously -- she is the top public information officer for the agency in Washington, D.C. -- she agreed to go on the record with the statement.

On Friday, PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, who is representing Monnett in the complaint filed with Interior, said Schwartz's statement makes the whole case even more puzzling.

"Now he doesn't even have a clue," Ruch said. "Now he's totally in the dark."

Ruch said Schwartz's statement also contradicts written material given to Monnett by investigators, who told him the Interior Department had concerns about his ability to act impartially on a contract involving polar bear research.

Ruch said it has always been unclear why concerns over a single contract would result in sending him home and not allowing him to talk with colleagues, which is part of the suspension order.

"Now are they saying it's 'non-scientific' integrity issues?" Ruch said.

PEER is concerned that the Interior Department is not following rules it recently issued aimed at shielding agency scientists from political interference. Monnett's work for BOEMRE in Alaska is part of the debate going on over whether the agency should allow oil companies to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where environmentalists have raised concerns that climate change is causing a loss of sea ice and threatening the polar bears' habitat, among numerous other concerns.

Ruch said PEER is submitting a federal Freedom Of Information Act request to the Interior Department and the Inspector General for all material they have concerning Monnett, part of an effort to figure out what's going on.

"They're saying there's something big here and we can't tell you," Ruch said. "That's the damndest thing I've ever heard of."

While Schwartz is willing to say what the case is not about, she declines to say what it is about. She did say in the email to Alaska Dispatch that any contracts that Monnett had been overseeing are now "being managed by the highly qualified scientists at BOEMRE."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.