Science
12:10 pm
Wed August 17, 2011

Fresh Allegations Leveled Against Polar Bear Scientist

The polar bear researcher who was suspended from his government job last month has received a new letter from investigators that lays out actions he took that are described as being "highly inappropriate" under the rules that apply to managing federal contracts.

According to the letter, wildlife biologist Charles Monnett told investigators that he assisted a scientist in preparing that scientist's proposal for a government contract. Monnett then served as chair of a committee that reviewed that proposal.

A lawyer with a group that is assisting Monnett says that what he did was standard practice at Monnett's office, that no other groups were competing for that sole-source contract, and that this letter "confirms our view that they are really on a witch hunt, trying to get Dr. Monnett."

Monnett works for an agency of the Department of the Interior and, in 2006, published his observations of apparently drowned polar bears in the Arctic. The dead polar bears became a powerful symbol of the danger of climate change and melting ice, and were featured in Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth."

Monnett has been under an official investigation for months, and his legal team says that investigators have repeatedly asked him about his observations of dead polar bears and the reports he wrote describing them. His supporters say he is being targeted because of the political implications of his work for regulating greenhouse gases and Arctic oil drilling.

A spokesperson for the agency that employs Monnett, the U. S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, has previously said in a statement that "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."

The new letter, which was written by a special agent of the Office of Inspector General at the U. S. Department of Interior and dated August 15, told Monnett that essentially, "you admitted that you reviewed a Proposal...that you helped draft."

"I'd say 'helped draft' is quite an exaggeration," says Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, which is providing legal assistance to Monnett and made the letter available to NPR.

The $1.3 million contract in question funds a polar bear tracking study led by University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher. Dinerstein said that Monnett merely looked over the scientist's proposal and let the scientist know if it met the basic requirements for what a proposal should be.

Plus, Dinerstein said, "the decision had been made long before all this happened that this was going to be a sole-source contract with this Canadian university."

She said no other group was competing for this sole-source contract, "so the kind of inappropriateness that they are talking about simply doesn't apply here." She says the contract was for work that piggybacked on polar bear research that the university was already doing.

Monnett's legal team has said that in past interviews, investigators have seemed to ask whether the contract was inappropriately steered to the University of Alberta scientist by Monnett in exchange for the scientist offering a peer review of Monnett's soon-to-be-famous dead polar bear paper.

During an August 9 interview, Monnett's lawyers have said Inspector General investigators asked questions about the fact that, as the contract was being finalized, Monnett had asked Derocher for his thoughts on the unpublished report on dead polar bears. But Monnett's lawyers say the contract had been negotiated for months before that and that Monnett's request for an informal peer review was unrelated.

Dinerstein says that Monnett's actions with regard to looking over the scientist's proposal for the contract prior to its review was the "standard practice" at his office. "Everything that Dr. Monnett did in this situation, and in other situations where there were sole-source contracts, was known by his management and the Contracting Officers."

But in the latest letter to Monnett, the Inspector General's special agent writes that the Contracting Officer in this case told investigators that she did not know of Monnett's actions: "The CO told the OIG that you never informed her you had taken such actions, and if you had told her she would have warned you that such actions would be highly inappropriate under procurement integrity policies and procedures."

The letter asks Monnett to inform investigators of any other contract holders that he assisted in this way.

Dinerstein says it appears as though the special agents are trying to broaden their investigation "when, in fact, everything that he did was approved by his management, was standard practice, was following the lead of the people who were supposedly in charge of complying with the federal contracting regulations. He was the scientist."

Her group has filed a complaint of scientific and scholarly misconduct against officials at Monnett's agency about how he has been treated. In a letter to PEER dated August 8, the scientific integrity officer at the Department of Interior stated that an inquiry is being conducted into those allegations.

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