Commerce IG Slams Department Officials for Sharpiegate, Congress Wants Answers – UPDATED

Commerce IG Slams Department Officials for Sharpiegate, Congress Wants Answers – UPDATED

The Department of Commerce Inspector General has issued a harshly critical assessment of how Department officials handled Sharpiegate last year where NOAA rebuked the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, AL when it disagreed with a statement by President Trump about Hurricane Dorian. Only a summary was released, however, not the full report. In a separate memo today (July 1), Inspector General Peggy Gustafson expressed “deep concern” that the Department is preventing her office from completing its work. Two key members of Congress are demanding release of the full report. [Updated July 3 with additional statements from Sen. Cantwell and Rep. Johnson.]

In September 2019, 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 that.  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).

The Inspector General (IG) report is separate from an independent study commissioned by NOAA that looked more narrowly into whether two NOAA officials, Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs and Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications Julie Roberts, violated the agency’s scientific integrity policies in producing that unsigned letter.  The report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) found they “engaged in 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.”

Still, many believe they were acting at the direction of higher ranking officials in the Department and at the White House.

The IG investigated actions of Department officials more broadly than NOAA. Its brief summary is blunt.

The summary, released on Monday (June 29), says the full report is undergoing a “privilege review,” but a memo issued today (July 1) by Gustafson goes much further.  She asserts that the Department is preventing her office from releasing the full report.

This memorandum expresses my deep concern that the Department is failing to identify specific privileges and provide privilege markings to a U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General (OIG) evaluation, while claiming amorphous and generalized privileges, which effectively prevent us from publicly releasing the evaluation that is otherwise ready for release.  — Peggy Gustafson, DOC Inspector General

Adding that the “final publication of our evaluation has been delayed, thwarted, and effectively estopped by the Department’s refusal to identify specific areas of privilege,” Gustafson asks the Department to provide “precise and unambiguous privilege markings of proposed redactions no later than 3:00 pm (EST) [sic] on July 9, 2020.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee also is investigating what happened.  She issued a statement this evening (July 1) insisting that the full report be released to the public. The 2020 hurricane season is already underway and the public needs to know NWS forecasts are not “tainted by political interference.”

“It is disturbing that the Department of Commerce appears to be obstructing the Office of Inspector General from releasing its report on an incident surrounding political interference into the communication of Hurricane Dorian forecasts. It is imperative that the OIG is able to complete its job and inform Congress and the American people about its findings.

“We are currently experiencing an above-average hurricane season, and we must be able to trust that the Federal government’s communication of hurricane forecasts is not tainted by political interference. As long as the Department continues to suppress this report, this is not the case. Furthermore, any attempted retaliation against the OIG for adhering to its legal requirement to make its reports public would be transparently corrupt. I support the OIG in its effort to publish this report despite the Department’s obstruction.”  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, July 1

Update: Johnson sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on July 3 warning him that if the report is not released “in a reasonable amount of time, the Committee may utilize compulsory means” to obtain it so the American people can “determine the nature of the Department’s obstruction.”  She also warned him not to retaliate against the IG for fulfilling the office’s statutory responsibility.

Jacobs’ nomination to be Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator is pending in the Senate. It cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on May 20, but the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), said while she would vote for him in committee, she was making no promises to support him during Senate consideration of the nomination until she saw the results of the IG investigation.

Cantwell released her own statement on July 1 also demanding release of the full report.

“It appears that the Department of Commerce received an Inspector General report of an investigation into Hurricane Dorian information mismanagement on June 26th, but has blocked its release. I expect that full, unredacted report to be made public immediately in the interest of full transparency.” — Sen. Maria Cantwell, July 1

Update:  That statement was written before Cantwell had seen Gustafson’s July 1 memo.  On July 2, after reading that memo, Cantwell issued another statement saying:

“This situation has gone from bad to worse. Secretary Ross must immediately cease this campaign to keep the public in the dark. The Inspector General is doing their job and the public deserves to see the report. Release the report now, Mr. Secretary.” Sen. Maria Cantwell, July 2

Cantwell previously sent several letters to officials about Sharpiegate, including one to the IG on June 20 that asked specifically about the role played by Michael Walsh in facilitating or writing the unsigned letter. Walsh’s nomination to be the Department’s General Counsel is pending before the Senate Commerce Committee.  He currently is Ross’s Chief of Staff and Acting General Counsel.


This article was updated July 3, 2020.

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