INTERIOR:

FWS director ignored supervisors' misconduct toward whistle-blowers -- IG

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe ignored months of "stern warnings" on the need to discipline two supervisors who retaliated against whistle-blowers who exposed scientific misconduct, according to a management alert from the Interior Department's inspector general.

Deputy IG Mary Kendall sent the alert to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on July 11.

House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) publicly released the alert yesterday evening and today is expected to question Ashe about the issue when he appears before the committee for a hearing on a separate matter.

In the alert, Kendall harshly criticizes top officials at FWS and asks Jewell to take "immediate action" to address "an unreasonable and inappropriate response" to the supervisors' misconduct.

"The failure to take timely and appropriate management action by FWS senior leadership, to include Director Dan Ashe, damages the credibility and integrity of the Department of the Interior and the FWS Science Program as well as senior leadership," Kendall wrote.

The letter does not name the supervisors or the whistle-blowers, though it identifies the latter as three FWS biologists.

Those biologists had identified scientific integrity violations, bringing their allegations to FWS officials. The scientific integrity officer at FWS confirmed those allegations -- one of the first such findings under Interior's new scientific integrity policy. Kendall's letter does not specify the nature of the misconduct, and her office declined to provide details.

But in the wake of that finding, the three biologists faced reprisal and went to the IG's office. During a months-long investigation, IG investigators confirmed that two FWS supervisors had retaliated against the biologists by cutting their pay and changing their duties.

IG officials then engaged in "months of pointed discussions and stern warnings" with Ashe, Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle and Deputy Director Rowan Gould.

Two months after the findings, FWS management still has done nothing, according to Kendall's letter. Instead, the "offending supervisors" have gotten what appear to be promotions.

The whistle-blowers, meanwhile, "feel isolated, under-engaged, and punished" for exposing scientific misconduct.

"The actions taken against the complainants sends a strong and negative message to FWS employees who have a duty to report lack of integrity or misconduct pursuant to the DOI science policy or even to raise issues of concern at the lowest possible level," Kendall wrote. "This case is disturbing in the sense that no one seems to have thanked the biologists for their passion for good science and for the courage it took for them to report misconduct at significant risk to their professional and personal well-being."

A statement issued yesterday evening from FWS said, "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes whistleblower retaliation and scientific integrity complaints very seriously. The Service, in coordination with its Human Resources office, is pursuing all appropriate disciplinary actions to address the matters raised in the Inspector General's Management Advisory. The Service has acted on the Scientific Integrity Review Panel's recommendations and is taking additional steps to help ensure that such an occurrence is not repeated and to ensure scientific and management excellence in delivery of our conservation mission."

Meanwhile, Ashe is scheduled to appear before the House Natural Resources Committee this morning for a hearing on how "sue and settle" practices influence endangered species listings (E&E Daily, July 29).

He may face questions from Hastings, who sent a letter to Ashe yesterday asking for all documents related to the IG's retaliation investigation, as well as "a complete description on what actions, if any, were taken by the Service in response to the investigations, including personnel actions or policy changes." He has also asked for any written correspondence between FWS and the IG's office on the issue.

"Concerns have been raised that the Service failed to take timely and appropriate management action against supervisors who may have engaged in scientific misconduct and then retaliated against whistleblowers who reported the misconduct to the OIG," Hastings said in a statement. "The Committee takes allegations of violations of scientific integrity as well as whistleblower retaliation very seriously and expects to be kept apprised of this issue."

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