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Interior Department questions Monnett on polar bear article -- again

Patti Epler

Federal investigators questioned a suspended veteran Arctic scientist for a second time on Tuesday and continued to focus on a 2006 article he'd written about drowned polar bears, according to the employee support group that is representing him.

The suspension of Charles Monnett reverberated through media outlets and Internet blogs a few weeks ago when Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility alleged in a complaint filed with the Interior Department that the disciplinary action was nothing more than a political witch hunt wrapped up in the broader debate over oil and gas development in the Arctic. The article published by Monnett and Jeffrey Gleason, who were at the time scientists with the former Minerals Management Service, galvanized public attention on climate change and raised questions of whether polar bears were drowning due to disappearing sea ice, a casualty of global warming.

Monnett and his supporters have consistently contended that higher-ups in the agency, now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), refuse to tell Monnett what he was suspended and investigated for. Earlier this year, Monnett and Gleason, who no longer works for BOEMRE, were grilled by investigators with the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General about the article and questioned about whether their account of four drowned polar bears after a storm in the Beaufort Sea was scientifically sound and even purposely skewed.

But after the story hit the media last month, BOEMRE officials denied the investigation had anything to do with the article. BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in a press release that his suspension had "nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged."

On July 29, the IG's office sent Monnett a letter summoning him to Tuesday's interview and saying that the focus was on his actions during procurement of a research study on polar bears conducted by the University of Alberta in Canada.

But Tuesday's interview clearly showed that the investigators are still focused on the scientific merit of the 2006 article, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.

The investigators did ask questions about Monnett's role in the procurement of the Canadian study but Monnett was acting under the direction of BOEMRE contracting and procurement staff, Ruch said.

"With each interview, it becomes more outrageous that government funds are being spent on this crackpot probe while paying Dr. Monnett's salary to sit home," Ruch said in a press release.

In a short interview, Ruch said he and two other PEER lawyers accompanied Monnett to the interview, which lasted nearly three hours. A transcript will be available and published on PEER's website but likely will take about three weeks to get, he said.

Ruch said investigators revisited questions about the 2006 article and how the peer review process was carried out before it was published in the scientific journal Polar Biology. In particular, Ruch said, the investigators appeared to believe that Monnett steered a $1 million contract to the University of Alberta because the scientist leading that polar bear study was one of the peer reviewers.

But, Ruch said, the contract was conceptually approved more than a year before the Monnett-Gleason article. And it was awarded by contracting officers and higher-ups in MMS. The study tracks polar bears and their movements from 2005 through 2012.

The investigators, in Ruch's opinion, also essentially accused Monnett of campaigning for climate change based on questions about an email he'd sent to an editor of the article addressing a peer review issue. In that email Monnett said the treatment of the article needed to be conservative so it wasn't used by environmentalists and other groups for fundraising purposes.

Ruch said it's unclear what happens now, and that the IG's office has repeatedly refused to give Monnett a list of procedures or rules they think he may have violated or otherwise detail what he is being investigated for.

"They say the allegations will become clear based on the questions" they are asking him, Ruch said.

In that regard, BOEMRE's contention that Monnett's scientific integrity is not at issue appears to be untrue, Ruch said. The questions are all about scientific integrity, he said.

BOEMRE officials declined comment on Tuesday.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com