An Interior Department biologist potentially violated procurement rules when he helped another scientist prepare a proposal for an agency-funded study, according to a letter from Interior's inspector general.
The letter sheds light on an investigation that has caused an uproar among environmentalists.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement suspended wildlife biologist Charles Monnett last month, prompting widespread debate over whether the investigation was related to his 2006 paper on drowned polar bears. That paper helped galvanize the global warming movement, and a transcript revealed that IG investigators questioned Monnett in detail about his observations and scientific methods for it.
But in a letter sent to Monnett this week, Special Agent in Charge David Brown alleges that the biologist assisted Andrew Derocher in preparing a response to the government's request for proposal for a current study on polar bears. The sole-source contract was subsequently awarded to Derocher's employer, the University of Alberta in Canada.
Monnett was chairman of the Technical Proposal Evaluation Committee. By helping Derocher draft that proposal, Monnett essentially reviewed a document he helped write, according to the IG letter.
"The [contracting officer] told the OIG that you never informed her you had taken such actions, and if you had she would have warned you that such actions would be highly inappropriate under procurement integrity policies and procedures," Brown wrote.
But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that aids government whistle-blowers, argues that Monnett had no authority to commit the government to contracts and was encouraged by the contracting officer to share information with the University of Alberta. PEER first announced Monnett's suspension last month and is legally representing him.
"We just got this letter yesterday and have not yet formulated a response," said Paula Dinerstein, PEER's senior counsel working on the case. "However, our previous materials do pretty much cover it -- Dr. Monnett was not the contracting officer, and therefore was not the one making decisions on who to contract with or ensuring compliance with contracting regulations. Everything he did was standard practice known to and engaged in by the contracting officers and other managers."
In a news release earlier this month, PEER points out that the Alberta study is only partially funded through BOEMRE; Canada has contributed about $800,000 to the $2 million study, which produces data on polar bears' movement and is called "Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears."
BOEMRE recently issued a stop work order on the study, only to restart it a couple of weeks later. But Brown's letter indicated that the inspector general's office is broadening its investigation after an Aug. 9 interview with Monnett.
"In response to being provided this information by the OIG, you attempted to explain your actions by stating you had assisted other vendors to government contracts in the past by helping them draft their Proposals to government RFPs," Brown wrote. "Accordingly, please consider this correspondence a formal request by the OIG for identification of the specific contracts wherein you have taken these actions."
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch has said the Aug. 9 interview was three hours long, with half of the time devoted to questions on Monnett's 2006 paper. Derocher informally read a draft of the paper before Monnett submitted it to management and later to Polar Biology; the implication is that the current contract sprang from favoritism born out of Derocher's feedback (Greenwire, Aug. 10).
The investigation has prompted debate over whether it is connected to plans to approve oil drilling in the Arctic reserve. Last week, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity asked Interior to look into whether Monnett's suspension violated scientific integrity rules meant to protect research from political interference (Greenwire, Aug. 5).
PEER also filed a complaint last month arguing that allegations of scientific misconduct must go through professional review. Interior is conducting an inquiry into that complaint, according to a letter to PEER from Ralph Morganweck, Interior's science integrity officer.
But Interior officials have since said the investigation has nothing to do with Shell's plan to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean. And an Interior spokesman said the inquiry is part of the standard procedures under the agency's scientific integrity policy.
Click here to read Special Agent in Charge Brown's letter to Monnett.
Click here to read Science Integrity Officer Morganweck's letter to PEER.