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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BOEM settles with whistleblower scientist Charles Monnett, ordeal finally over -- no scientific misconduct

by Jill Burke, Alaska Dispatch, December 4, 2013

When scientist Dr. Charles Monnett saw dead polar bears floating in the Arctic waters off of Alaska in 2004, he could not have foreseen that it would lead, a decade later, to a career-ending inquiry into his credibility and the trustworthiness of his work.
It didn't matter that he'd ultimately withstand years of would-be criminal investigations, brought upon him by his own superiors. Or that he'd eventually clear his own name. In the end, stopping the turmoil came down to saying goodbye to a 20-year government career.
In November, Monnett resigned his post with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and agreed to stay away from any job with the Department of the Interior for at least five years. As part of the deal, BOEM removed a previously-issued reprimand from Monnett's personnel file, reinstated his name to a Cooperative Conservation Award he earned in 2010, and gave the longtime scientist $100,000.
“It's hard to be happy about any of this,” Monnett said when reached via phone in Seattle. “It seemed so unnecessary to go through, but I think under the circumstances I feel reasonably vindicated. I've cleared the air and can move on with my life now.”
In 2006, Monnett and another scientist included their discovery of drowned polar bears as a note in a journal article published in Polar Ecology. “All I did was say 'here are some polar bears that drowned, and it was a result of a storm and storms may become more common as a result of changes in the sea ice,'” Monnett said.
The article quickly became a clarion call for environmentalists looking to thwart oil and gas development in the Arctic, and created tension within Monnett's agency, then known as the Minerals Management Service, which also sold oil and gas leases. Years later that article was among the topics investigators from the Office of the Inspector General grilled Monnett about during long interviews.
Both sides claimed they were acting solely in the interest of scientific integrity. Monnett viewed himself as a principled agitator, unwilling to compromise his ethics or his work to fit agency agendas. BOEM would claim they were obligated to review Monnett's past conduct in doling out grants and as a scientific observer and author. BOEM would finally conclude that they'd uncovered no scientific misconduct -- though investigators hinted at this -- and slapped Monnett with the lowest form of punishment, a written reprimand for sharing work-related emails with people outside of his agency.
When asked to respond to Monnett's departure and the financial settlement, BOEM would only say “We cannot comment on personnel matters. Sound science is the foundation of BOEM's decision-making, and therefore we take the integrity of our scientists and the reliability of their work very seriously. We are proud of the exceptional scientists at BOEM and of BOEM's scientific programs.”
The letter of reprimand, issued in September 2012, gave Monnett and his attorney, Jeffrey Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, something tangible to finally dispute. The settlement reached in October, including the $100,000, puts an end to that appeal and to any other whistleblower complaints generated by Monnett, including that BOEM had attempted to “ram through Arctic offshore drilling permits.”
“It may be the most expensive letter of reprimand that the Interior Department has ever issued,” Ruch said.
The settlement also calls for Monnett to stop his attempts to gain access to documents about the Inspector General's investigation, and the role of BOEM officials to it, under the Freedom of Information Act.
Ruch characterizes the Inspector General inquiries into Monnett as “clueless and relentless.” Clueless, because they didn't think the investigators understood the scientific analysis and math Monnett had done, or that they understood the process by which journal articles are reviewed. Relentless, because they never knew when the investigators would come back for another run at Monnett.
It was, in Ruch's eyes, a politically motivated witch hunt.
Things are different now at BOEM, but Monnett isn't convinced “different” amounts to better. He believes the agency has rebuilt itself to better fit a model where scientists are forced to be compliant with top-down agendas, to resist taking a hard look at things, to just get the job done quickly and efficiently so that permits can be approved.
“It's different, but only because dissent has been smashed,” Monnett said.
So what's next for the man who'd hoped cutting-edge research would answer key questions to help evaluate the effects of oil and gas activity on marine mammals and Arctic ecosystems? A little rest and relaxation, and maybe, scientific work found elsewhere, perhaps in another country, or in teaching.
He's been talked about for years. Now that the saga is over, he can set the record straight on a few things, portraits he calls wildly inaccurate. People either glorified or demonized him. Climate campaigner, polar bear biologist, Arctic scientist. None of the labels are correct, he said.
He's a marine ecologist, and the thing he calls the “one little thing I did as a byproduct of other things” -- note the dead polar bears during a fly over on a bowhead whale count -- branded him in ways he hadn't expected, and which he found embarrassing.
The stress of the intense scrutiny has been hard on him and his wife, who is also a scientist. It's taken a toll on his health; he says he's developed heart problems. And although he's disappointed to have ended his career in government, it does come with some sense of relief.
“I have been in purgatory a very long time. I can do anything I want now. I don't even need to think about what I am going to do next,” he said.


Anonymous said...

If there was no wrongdoing, why did Monnett agree to retire as a condition of the settlement?

Tenney Naumer said...

Oh, I dunno.

Maybe cuz he is 65.

Maybe cuz part of the settlement stipulated that he could not work for the DOI for 5 years.