The controversial "polarbeargate" investigation into Arctic researcher Charles Monnett originated when allegations of scientific misconduct were made by a "seasoned, career Department of the Interior" employee.
That's according to a new letter sent to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) from the Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General.
For months, Monnett has been under investigation by that office. Agents have repeatedly asked him about an influential 2006 report he wrote on his observations of apparently drowned polar bears. The report became a symbol of the danger of melting ice and climate change.
Until now, what sparked the investigation had been a mystery.
Supporters of Monnett charged that the investigation amounted to a witch hunt against the scientist, whose work has implications for climate change and drilling in the Arctic.
"In March 2010, the OIG received credible allegations from a seasoned, career Department of the Interior (DOI) employee, that acts of scientific misconduct may have been committed by one or more DOI employees," says the letter to Inhofe, which is signed by Mary Kendall, acting inspector general for the Department of the Interior.
This means the original complaint apparently did not originate from an outside interest group trying to discredit climate change research or influence government decisions about Artic drilling, as some critics seem to have assumed.
Jeff Ruch, a lawyer with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is providing legal representation for Monnett, expressed surprise when he heard that the allegations against Monnett came from within the Department of the Interior itself.
Ruch noted that Monnett's 2006 report on dead polar bears had been approved by his supervisors. "We assumed that if this agency approved it, it was unlikely that someone from that same agency would make allegations against itself," Ruch said.
Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote a letter to the Office of Inspector General on Aug. 16 requesting information about the Monnett investigation, saying that Monnett's article had been important to the government's decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species.
The Office of Inspector General typically does not comment on ongoing investigations, but the letter said in this case officials had decided to release background information because the investigation has been "subject to much public speculation" and the department hopes to "quell speculation and assure interested parties of the OIG's objectivity, professionalism, and independence in investigating this matter."
But, Ruch said, "This doesn't vindicate them; it just raises more questions about the IG's judgment."
It should have been clear from the first interview with Monnett that the allegations of scientific misconduct had no merit, says Ruch. "The question we would have for the IG is, do they still think the allegations are credible?"