by Douglas Messier
The Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has publicly accused department officials of preventing the public release of a report critical of actions taken by high-level department officials during hurricane Dorian last September.
In a memorandum to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross posted on the OIG website, Inspector General (IG) Peggy E. Gustafson said officials have held up the report by refusing to identify specific sections that should be redacted because they contain privileged information.
“The final publication of our evaluation has been delayed, thwarted, and effectively estopped by the Department’s refusal to identify specific areas of privilege,” she wrote. “Additionally, your staff has refused to engage in any meaningful discussion to identify proposed privilege redactions, indicating that such discussions would not be fruitful.
“To allow the Department’s all-encompassing and opaque assertion of privilege to stand is to effectively grant the Department a pocket veto over the completion and issuance of final OIG work, which is clearly contrary to the IG Act, OIG independence, and good government. It also violates Department policy to cooperate fully with OIG,” Gustafson added.
The so-called SharpieGate scandal began on Sept. 1, 2019, when President Donald Trump tweeted that Alabama would most likely be hit much harder than anticipated by Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane that at the time was approaching the Bahamas on its way to Florida.
Twenty minutes later, NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Ala., tweeted that the state was forecast to see no impacts from the hurricane. NOAA and NWS are part of the Commerce Department.
The correction infuriated Trump, who repeatedly insisted he was correct. During an Oval Office briefing on Sept. 4, the president had a map showing the projected path of Dorian that had been altered with a black marker to extend the hurricane’s impacts into southeastern Alabama.
Critics quickly dubbed the incident “SharpieGate” after the brand of black marker reportedly used to modify the map. The Washington Post quoted sources as saying Trump had drawn the semi-circle on the weather map.
The Inspector General’s review involves an unsigned statement released by NOAA on Sept. 6 that rebuked the Birmingham National Weather Service office and implied Trump had been correct in his tweet about the storm impacting Alabama.
Critics said the statement undermined the credibility and non-partisan nature of NOAA and NWS. Complaints were filed alleging violations of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy that were reviewed by an outside organization.
Gustafson launched the OIG review of the statement on Sept. 7 with a letter to Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs instructing him to preserve all relevant documents.
In her memo to Ross, Gustafson wrote that officials were cooperating with the investigation as required by law until recently.
“Notably communications were consistently collegial, until OIG transmitted the final report for a privilege review and subsequent issuance of the final report to you,” she wrote. “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. I am concerned that the substance of our report and findings has resulted in this retaliatory posturing.”
In a separate memorandum to the Commerce secretary, Gustafson summarized the results of the investigation as follows:
I. The Department led a flawed process that discounted NOAA participation.
II. The Department required NOAA to issue a Statement that did not further NOAA’s or NWS’s interests.
III. The Department failed to account for the public safety intent of the NWS Birmingham tweet and the distinction between physical science and social science messaging.
IV. One NOAA employee deleted relevant text messages, and the Department’s federal records guidance is outdated.
Gustafson has given officials until July 9 at 3 p.m. EDT to provide “precise and unambiguous markings of proposed redactions for specified privileges.”