Cantwell Opposes Jacobs Nomination After Release of Sharpiegate IG Report

Cantwell Opposes Jacobs Nomination After Release of Sharpiegate IG Report

The top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), came out in opposition to the nomination of Neil Jacobs to be Administrator of NOAA today after release of the full Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General report on Sharpiegate.  Only a brief summary was made available last week prompting congressional ire that the Department was preventing the public from seeing the complete report.  Now it is out and Cantwell says it demonstrates Jacobs is not the leader NOAA needs.

Jacobs was confirmed by the Senate as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction on February 18, 2018.  Since February 2019 he has been acting head of NOAA, which has not had a permanent Administrator since the beginning of the Trump Administration.  President Trump nominated Jacobs to be Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator on December 18, 2019.

In August-September 2019, with Jacobs at the helm, NOAA became embroiled in controversy after President Trump tweeted on September 1 that “South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian even though the forecast did not show Alabama was threatened.  The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham issued a statement clarifying that Alabama would see no impact from the storm.

“Sharpiegate” ensued when Trump displayed a map to reporters where someone apparently used a Sharpie pen to include Alabama in the warning area and NOAA issued an unsigned letter on September 6 criticizing the NWS for contradicting the President.

The NWS is part of NOAA, and NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce (DOC).

On June 29, DOC Inspector General (IG) Peggy Gustafson released a brief summary of her office’s harshly critical report on the incident.  In a separate memo to Under Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn July 1, Gustafson complained that the Department was preventing release of the full report by refusing to designate specific areas of the report that the Department wanted redacted based on privilege.  Cantwell and House Science, Space, and Technology  Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who is conducting her own investigation, both insisted that the full report be released.

Today it was made public with no redactions to the report itself, although there are some in correspondence included in the appendices.

The report pulls no punches about the roles played by Jacobs or higher levels of the Department.

We conclude that the drafting and issuance of the [September 6] Statement was conducted through a Department-led process that had significant flaws and that the acting head of NOAA acquiesced in that Department-led process.  — Department of Commerce Inspector General

As the report lays out, after complaints from then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney that the NWS was contradicting the President, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross tasked his Chief of Staff and Acting General Counsel, Michael Walsh, to lead the process that led to issuing the September 6 letter.  Walsh brought in Jacobs, but “[d]espite his authority to do so” Jacobs did not bring in other NOAA officials.

“The Department and NOAA participants did not follow a standardized clearance process for the final Statement and did not get buy-in from the affected NOAA and NWS constituencies.”

Walsh gets most of the blame, but Jacobs “also bears responsibility for not involving other senior NOAA officials…” other than Julie Roberts, NOAA’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications.

A separate report from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) commissioned by NOAA cited Jacobs and Roberts for scientific misconduct in the episode.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved Jacobs’ nomination on May 20, but Cantwell made clear at the time she was withholding judgment on his confirmation until this report was completed.  Today she came out in opposition.

“NOAA’s work is crucial to protecting American lives and creating and supporting jobs in our ocean economy, which is why leaders of a scientific agency like NOAA must hold themselves, and their agency, to the highest scientific integrity standard. Unfortunately, the report released today makes it crystal clear Neil Jacobs is not that leader, and he failed to protect scientists from political influence. Therefore, I oppose Neil Jacobs’ nomination to be the Administrator of NOAA, and I urge my colleagues to join me.” — Sen. Maria Cantwell

Walsh’s nomination to be DOC’s General Counsel also is pending before the Senate.  Cantwell’s statement did not mention him today, but she asked about his role in Sharpiegate in a June 20 letter to Gustafon as part of the nomination process.

The IG report says “On balance, Mr. Walsh tried to coordinate this project in a limited amount of time while he was traveling in Europe. These circumstances likely contributed to the flawed process that resulted in the Statement—but do not justify the flawed process or poor judgment.”

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