Kristofer Helgen, a young, rising star in the world of zoology, could soon be out of a job at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, according to an article published online Tuesday in the Verge.
The museum investigated Helgen, 36, after allegations by staffers that he attempted to carry scientific specimens out of Kenya without the proper permits, the article states. An initial inquiry by the Smithsonian's inspector general found no wrongdoing, and the IG recommended that the case be closed. But, as the Verge story reports, a second internal inquiry led his department chair to recommend Helgen's termination.
“There was no misconduct. I think this case has been very poorly handled," Helgen's attorney, Michael Kator, said Tuesday. Kator confirmed the major details of the published account and said the Smithsonian could reach a final decision by the end of the summer. He said Helgen has been on administrative leave since July and is prohibited from speaking about the case.
“He’s obviously devastated by this whole thing. One of the critical things to him, he is a prolific scientist. He produces a lot of work, and he has a massive research program, and it's been shuttered for 10 months while this investigation has been going on," Kator said. "This is all very damaging to the museum and to the Smithsonian as a whole.”
The museum, which lists Helgen as "curator in charge" of its mammals staff, issued a terse statement when contacted Tuesday: "To preserve the integrity of our personnel processes, and to respect and protect the privacy of our employees, the Smithsonian does not discuss or comment on personnel matters."
Much of the Verge article is based on anonymous sources. It depicts Helgen as a popular but demanding scientist who ran afoul of some colleagues, in part because of the attention he received in the scientific press, and because of his willingness to shake things up at a venerable but hidebound institution.
Soon after the 2015 expedition ended, writer Michael Balter details, "Helgen was accused by his staff of trying to illegally export animal specimens from Kenya. Eventually the charge sheet included allegations that he had instructed his employees to hide samples from wildlife inspectors, and that he had copied a supervisor’s signature onto a document authorizing export of specimens without her knowledge or permission."
Kator said his client never removed anything from Kenya. “Nothing was actually ever exported. Nothing ever left Kenya," he said. "We’re not talking about animals, we’re talking about blood samples and test tubes, not actual animals.”
Helgen has frequently been profiled in science magazines and has appeared many times on television documentaries, according to his bio page at the Natural History museum. He enjoyed national attention three years ago when, along with colleagues, he announced the discovery of a new species of carnivore, the olinguito, native to the cloud forests of the Andes.