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Environment: Probe of Arctic scientist ends inconclusively

A June 2012 image shows sea ice breaking up in the Beaufort Sea, targeted by energy companies for oil drilling.

Investigation ends with letter of reprimand for leaking emails

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —A Kafka-esque federal probe of a polar biologist ended inconclusively this week, as biologist Charles Monnett got a mild slap on the wrist for an alleged breach of policy that was unrelated to the focus of the 2.5-year investigation.

No charges will be brought against the Monnett regarding his high-profile research on polar bears, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, but according to the Alaska Dispatch, the federal government still maintains that Monnett and a co-researcher may have used incomplete and perhaps even false data in writing a report about polar bear drownings.

According to the Alaska Dispatch, the Inspector General report also suggested that Monnett “intended to manipulate data to meet a personal agenda, including influencing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.”

To this point, Monnett has received a letter of reprimand for allegedly improper disclosures back in 2007 and 2008 which helped reveal that Bush administration suppressed scientific information about oil drilling impacts.

Monnett forwarded emails showing that the federal regulators suppressed concerns that should have been reflected in the environmental review related to Arctic drilling permits — including concerns about the potential for invasive species, said PEER director Jeff Ruch.

At the time, the Department of Interior was being sued by conservation groups and local communities in Alaska, and some of the documents referenced in Monnett’s emails were not reflected in the administrative record under review by the court, suggesting that the federal agency continued to hide information that would shed light on potential environmental impacts.

Monnett directed a multi-million dollar portfolio constituting a majority of research on Arctic wildlife and ecology conducted for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. In 2011, he was temporarily suspended due to the Interior Office of Inspector General investigation into a polar bear research contract managed by Dr. Monnett.

The probe also zeroed in on a 2004 paper authored by Dr. Monnett in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology concerning observations of drowned polar bears following a storm.

The final IG report, delivered to BOEM three months ago, is scheduled to be released any day, and could shed more light on the proceedings.

Monnett was told Sept. 27 that no action would be taken against him based on “findings made by the OIG in its report regarding your conduct” with the exception of a series of “improper disclosures of internal, deliberative government documents to a non-governmental entity” back in 2007 and 2008.

These disclosures had nothing to do with polar bear research but they embarrassed the agency and were, according to the letter of reprimand, “cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in making decisions to vacate BOEM’s approval of the Shell exploration plan” for Arctic waters.

“We are pleased this misguided witch hunt is finally stumbling to a conclusion,” said Ruch, whose organization is providing legal representation to both Dr. Monnett and his co-author of the drowned polar bear paper, Dr. Jeffrey Gleason. “We will push to learn how this abusive probe got started and why it was sustained. We expect Dr. Monnett to return to work as a scientist,” Ruch said.

Monnett  has been told that he will return to scientific work. The letter of reprimand, a low level of discipline, will be placed in his personnel file for two years and then “be removed…and destroyed” if he commits no further “misconduct during this period.”

The reprimand may be challenged through civil service and ultimately court appeals.

“We are amazed that Dr. Monnett would be reproved for revealing that his agency was wrongfully withholding information,” Ruch said, noting that such disclosures are protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act, among other laws.

“For his actions, Chuck Monnett deserves a citation, not a reprimand.  However, if after years of investigation, these stale, stilted charges are the only things these jokers could dig up, Dr. Monnett must be an exemplary public servant.”

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