JUNEAU, Alaska - An Alaska scientist whose observations of drowned polar bears helped galvanize the global warming movement has been reprimanded for improper release of government documents.
An Interior Department official said emails released by Charles Monnett were cited by a federal appeals court in decisions to vacate approval by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management of an oil and gas company's Arctic exploration plan.
The official, Walter Cruickshank, deputy director of BOEM, said in a memo that an inspector general's investigation contained findings that Monnett had improperly disclosed internal government documents, which he said were later used against the agency in court. He also said the investigation made other findings in regards to Monnett's conduct, but he wasn't taking action on those. He would not specify those findings.
Cruickshank called Monnett's "misconduct very serious," and said any future misconduct may lead to more seve re discipline, including removal from federal service.
Monnett was briefly suspended last year during an inspector general's investigation into a polar bear research contract he managed. Jeff Ruch, executive director of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has been involved in the matter on Monnett's behalf, said Friday that the issue of the document release did not even come up in investigators' questioning of Monnett.
He called the outcome "completely unexpected," and said Monnett is confused by it.
"We think he's owed an apology, but we're not going to hold our breath until he gets one," Ruch said.
PEER, in a news release, said the email disclosure had nothing to do with polar bear research but that it embarrassed the agency. The group said it expects the inspector general's report to be released soon.
Federal investigators have said that Monnett helped a polar bear researcher prepare a proposal even though he w as the government official who determined whether the proposal met minimum qualifications. PEER has said Monnett's handling of the study was proper and that Monnett, instead, was being targeted for a 2006 article on drowned polar bears.
The article was based on observations that Monnett and a fellow scientist made in 2004 while conducting an aerial survey of bowhead whales. They saw four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm.
In the article, they said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of the bears floating dead and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances. They wrote that while polar bears are considered strong swimmers, long-distance swims may exact a greater metabolic toll than standing or walking on ice in better weather.
They said their findings suggested that drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future "if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer o pen water periods continues."
The article and related presentations helped to make the polar bear a symbol for the global warming movement.
A BOEM spokeswoman, Theresa Eisenman, said the findings do not support a conclusion that the scientists involved engaged in "scientific misconduct."
Monnett's reprimand could be removed from his record in two years or less.