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New Allegations Leveled Against Polar Bear Scientist

A polar bear researcher was suspended from his government job last month over allegations of federal contract mismanagement. Above, a polar bear on fresh ice in the Hudson Bay in November 2007.
Paul J. Richards
AFP/Getty Images
A polar bear researcher was suspended from his government job last month over allegations of federal contract mismanagement. Above, a polar bear on fresh ice in the Hudson Bay in November 2007.

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 chairman 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 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 Aug. 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," said 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 Contract In Question

The $1.3 million contract in question funds a polar bear tracking study led by University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher. Dinerstein said 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.

A spokesperson for the University of Alberta, Brian Murphy, said Wednesday that Derocher was not available to talk about the latest allegations and that "the university and Dr. Derocher cannot comment on an ongoing investigation."

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 Aug. 9 interview, Monnett's lawyers have said Inspector General investigators asked questions about the fact that, as the contract was being finalized, Monnett 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 said Monnett's actions with regard to looking over the scientist's proposal for the contract before 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," she said.

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 said 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 Aug. 8, the scientific integrity officer at the Department of Interior stated that an inquiry is being conducted into those allegations.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.