Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up ‘Sharpiegate’ probe report
The Commerce Department’s internal watchdog is accusing the department of “actively preventing” it from releasing a full report expected to detail a “flawed process” during what is now known as the Sharpiegate controversy.
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on Wednesday released a memo stating that department actions “effectively prevent us from publicly releasing the evaluation that is otherwise ready for release.”
A summary of the OIG report released earlier this week said that it found that the department led a “flawed process that discounted” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) participation and also “required NOAA to issue a Statement that did not further NOAA’s or [National Weather Service’s] interests.”
Last September, President Trump held up a map that showed an altered path for Hurricane Dorian sketched out with a black marker that appeared to wrongly show the storm headed toward Alabama in support of a statement he made earlier about the hurricane’s projected path.
The OIG began investigating after NOAA then released an unsigned statement saying that forecasts did at one point show that “tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama” and criticized the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office for tweeting that Alabama would not see impacts from the storm.
In a memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said that the department was declining to identify specific information that should be withheld.
“The final publication of our evaluation has been delayed, thwarted, and effectively stopped 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.”
The watchdog added that she expects specific redaction suggestions by July 9.
In its official response to the OIG, lawyers for the Commerce Department and NOAA wrote that they “have made the Department’s positions on the privileged material contained in this report known to your office over the course of the last four months.”
The response, obtained by The Hill, also included a memo from NOAA general counsel John Luce describing a “rushed” review process after officials were given the report late Friday.
“The decision to transmit late on Friday unnecessarily rushed the process and placed me and my colleagues at a disadvantage, having Friday and the weekend to perform our privilege review,” Luce wrote.
“To my understanding, this perfunctory process is inconsistent with how these privilege discussions are handled by other Inspectors General. There was no need to rush and curtail the window for review,” he added.
Luce’s memo also said that that the department and NOAA provided “sensible” redactions and write-arounds and that it was “disappointing” that the OIG rejected its proposed redactions.
“I do think it would be productive to have a conversation regarding privileged materials and thoughts about how we may re-evaluate and improve the process so to better address issues of public disclosure and these disputes may be avoided in the future,” the memo said.
Gustafson pushed back on the response memo in a statement to The Hill, saying that the department has only made privilege claims related to the report’s appendices.
“They sought and received an extension for their review, only to then refuse to engage in any meaningful discussions with the OIG,” the inspector general said.
“They continue to invoke unclear privilege claims related solely to appendices in the report, even though the Department itself characterized those claims as preliminary, non-final and unapproved by their interagency stakeholders,” she added. “The fact is, they continue to refuse to make any specific privilege claims, or to waive any privileges, as it relates to the body of our report. Their failure to make a decision, despite multiple opportunities, has paralyzed the process and prevented the ultimate release of the report.”
The summary of the OIG report, released earlier this week, additionally stated that 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” and accused an unidentified NOAA official of deleting relevant text messages.
A Commerce official who reviewed the report but was not authorized to comment told The Hill at the time that they did not believe the evidence provided matched the report’s conclusion.
Another recent investigation found that the statement released by NOAA was driven by political influence rather than science.
Following Gustafson’s original memo, Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the top senators on the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Related Agencies, wrote to Ross expressing “concern” on Thursday.
“After reviewing the statements included in the OIG’s Information Memorandum, we are compelled to remind you that the Committee expects all DOC employees to fully cooperate and assist the OIG in all investigative matters, and that any efforts to subvert or stifle the OIG are in direct defiance of the authorities granted to Inspector Generals by Congress under the Inspector General Act of 1978,” they wrote.
Updated at 6:40 p.m.
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