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As NOAA leaders take fall for ‘Sharpiegate,’ Commerce Department officials have so far escaped scrutiny

President Trump holds a chart as he talks with reporters in the Oval Office after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 4, 2019. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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Senior officials within the Commerce Department have ducked two of three investigations into a controversial National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) statement issued during 2019’s Hurricane Dorian in which they played a leading role.

This has left the public and policymakers with only a partial picture of what happened, along with concerns that the scandal could repeat itself, as we move further into what is forecast to be an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season.

While a scientific integrity policy investigation completed on behalf of NOAA on Monday found that its acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, and former deputy chief of staff, Julie Kay Roberts, violated ethics policies in issuing the statement, that inquiry was incomplete.

NOAA leaders violated agency’s scientific integrity policy, Hurricane Dorian ‘Sharpiegate’ investigation finds

The investigation did not include any interviews with or documents from senior political appointees at the Commerce Department, which houses NOAA, even though they have been implicated in the dust-up known as “Sharpiegate,” after President Trump displayed a modified NOAA forecast map during an Oval Office briefing erroneously depicting the storm as threatening Alabama.

Trump displayed the altered map in an apparent effort to retroactively justify an inaccurate tweet claiming that Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” from the Category 5 storm.

To this point, the NOAA leaders who bowed under pressure to justify the president’s inaccurate tweet in a Sept. 6 statement have been faulted for doing so, while the Commerce Department officials who applied the pressure have escaped accountability.

The independent panel conducting the investigation for NOAA requested access to two Commerce Department officials but was told that they were not bound by the same scientific integrity policy, and the interview requests were denied.

The Sept. 6, 2019, NOAA statement, which was unsigned, backed up repeated, inaccurate claims by Trump regarding the hurricane’s threat to Alabama and went against public statements and weather forecasts issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala.

The stakes involved in the NOAA investigations and how free the agency is from political interference are high, given the forecast this hurricane season and the complications of evacuation decisions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Weather forecasting is an essential public safety function that the government performs, but during Dorian, a monstrous storm that devastated the northwestern Bahamas, many saw the NOAA as bending to the wishes of the White House.

If people stop trusting forecasts from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, for example, they may be less likely to heed evacuation orders when a storm strikes.

In Congress, the House Science Committee has unsuccessfully sought to secure information from some of the same Commerce Department officials whose names appear in the NOAA report.

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), has sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross three letters requesting documents and in-person interviews with senior political appointees, including the department’s deputy general counsel, David Dewhirst, and chief of staff and general counsel, Michael Walsh Jr., two officials who, according to the NOAA report, played key roles in the statement’s contents.

Top Commerce Department aides orchestrated NOAA’s Hurricane Dorian statement, House Science Committee chair says

In addition, while there have been seven rounds of document disclosures in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from The Washington Post and other publications, none of the requests for communications pertaining to Commerce Department aides have been fulfilled.

If the Commerce Department does not produce the committee’s requested documents and briefings, then it has the option of issuing a subpoena, something that committee rarely does.

In a news release, Johnson wrote that the Commerce Department officials “must be held accountable for the role they played in the scientific integrity violations.”

The Commerce Department declined to provide a comment for this report or respond to a detailed list of questions related to the various investigations.

Trump pushed staff to deal with NOAA tweet that contradicted his inaccurate Alabama hurricane claim, officials say

The NOAA investigation, conducted by a panel put together by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit consulting organization for government agencies, made no judgment regarding the actions of Commerce Department officials. They were not interviewed for the report because NOAA’s scientific integrity policy “pertains to NOAA employees only,” and a review of their actions was deemed to be “outside the scope,” the NAPA report stated.

Yet the report, in its timeline of events, makes clear that the drafting process for the statement was orchestrated, controlled and driven by Commerce Department political appointees, up to and including Ross.

The process of preparing a statement began with late-night calls from Ross and his chief of staff, Walsh, to Jacobs and Roberts late on Sept. 5 and early on Sept 6, the report said.

Meetings were then held between Commerce political appointees and Jacobs and Roberts on the morning of Sept. 6, according to the report, during which time a statement was developed on a senior Commerce Department aide’s iPad.

Jacobs said that “when Julie [Roberts] and I showed up there was already a couple drafts versions of the statement going back and forth floating around,” the NAPA report noted. Jacobs and Roberts then ran a working version of the draft by career staff in NOAA’s communication office to ensure that the statement was “technically accurate.”

A consensus emerged that the reference to the NWS Birmingham office should be removed. Jacobs and Roberts made this recommendation to Commerce officials but were rebuffed, according to the report.

Commerce Department aides knew Alabama hurricane forecasters were not responding to Trump, but still rebuked them

During the afternoon of Sept. 6, the statement was approved within the Commerce Department for release while Jacobs and Roberts briefed key individuals within NOAA about its contents.

At 4:45 p.m., it was publicly disseminated.

Considering the dominant role that Commerce officials played in the statement drafting process, Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, who was among the first to call for a scientific misconduct investigation, wrote in his response to the NAPA report that the panel’s lack of access to these officials was “troubling.”

“Their access could have helped the panel and should have been available,” McLean wrote.

He added that Commerce officials have held a “steady” and “routinely belligerent posture toward NOAA on such matters as scientific integrity.”

In a memo accompanying the NAPA report, Stephen M. Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and information services and designated scientific integrity determining official, recommended that the Commerce Department be held to the same scientific integrity standards as NOAA.

His memo lays out the limitations of the NOAA scientific integrity investigation faulting Jacobs and Roberts.

“When there is a claim of political interference, such potential interference may (as it did in this case) arise from a point outside the agency,” Voltz wrote. “For the interference to impact NOAA’s scientific integrity, it must penetrate into the agency at some point. Considering the limits of NOAA’s jurisdiction under its policy, it is this point of penetration, and the impacts that flow within the agency after that penetration, which are the focus of the investigation.”

The memo calls for this to change, however, and for the Commerce Department to, among other actions, establish a scientific integrity policy that covers both career and political leadership, and develop an agreement to guide interactions between Commerce and NOAA officials in drafting NOAA severe-weather communications, “acknowledging the responsibility for NOAA to own the scientific content and allowing for Commerce to weigh in on policy content.”

While Commerce Department aides have escaped scrutiny for now, an upcoming report from the agency’s inspector general is expected to take a broader view and may include interviews with and documents from senior leaders at the sprawling agency.

The report from Inspector General Peggy Gustafson is expected to be released in the next few weeks.