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Commerce IG says department is preventing release of report about NOAA officials who issued Hurricane Dorian statement

Posted July 2, 2020 11:56 a.m. EDT

— The Commerce Department Inspector General's office claims department officials are "actively preventing" them from releasing a report regarding National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials' issuance of statements that contradicted with a local National Weather Service statement about Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.

A scientific misconduct investigation earlier this month found that NOAA officials violated their ethical standards and scientific integrity policy when they issued these conflicting statements during Hurricane Dorian.

In the memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said the Department is relying on "amorphous claims of privilege" that are preventing the IG's office from releasing their report. She said her office "cannot be expected to blindly divine the position of the Department and interagency stakeholders without specific privilege claims to specific portions of the report."

The report is the latest example of alleged interference by the Trump administration into an inspector general's investigation.

Gustafson says the department was cooperating with their investigation until she sent a final report for a "privilege review" before issuing the report to the public. Then, department officials claimed that because of the IG's "drafting approach, 'there was no meaningful way to redact the privileged materials'" they had previously identified in other drafts.

"This tone shift appears to be directly linked to the content of our report and the findings of responsibility of the high-level individuals involved," Gustafson said in the memo. "I am concerned that the substance of our report and findings has resulted in this retaliatory posturing."

The commerce department did not immediately respond to CNN's request for comment.

During Dorian's approach to the United States last year, President Donald Trump showed members of the media an image of the storm's potential path, which included a marker drawing in an area of Alabama.

Responding to calls of concern, the National Weather Service's Birmingham, Alabama, office tweeted out, "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east."

But on September 6, NOAA released a statement saying, "The information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama. ... The Birmingham National Weather Service's Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time."

The scientific misconduct investigation found that NOAA leadership's actions during the storm's approach violated the agency's ethical and scientific standards.

Specifically, the panel determined that acting Administrator of NOAA Neil Jacobs and NOAA Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications Julie Roberts violated NOAA's Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management and the agency's Scientific Integrity Policy in writing and releasing the September 6 statement.

By excluding the Birmingham office from the development of the statement, Jacobs and Roberts "engaged in the misconduct intentionally, knowingly, or in reckless disregard of the Code of Scientific Conduct or Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management in NOAA's Scientific Integrity Policy," the panel wrote.

In addition, the panel addresses the allegation that "the drafting of the September 6 Statement was driven by external political pressure from Department of Commerce ... senior leaders and inappropriately criticized the September 1 Birmingham Tweet and underlying scientific activity."

The panel found that Jacobs and Roberts "did not believe it was a good idea to release a statement, but felt significant external pressure to do so."

Both Jacobs and Roberts argued that they did not violate NOAA's scientific integrity policy.

The day after NOAA issued that statement, the inspector general's office issued a memo to the acting head of NOAA notifying him that their office was "examining the circumstances surrounding the unsigned Statement," the memo states.

Gustafson requested that Department officials provide "precise and unambiguous markings of proposed redactions for specified privileges" by July 9, the memo states.

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