The Commerce Department denies it obstructed the process of publishing the watchdog’s full findings.
The Commerce Department inspector general issued a strong rebuke on Wednesday of the department's alleged lack of cooperation on making public the IG’s full report on the “Sharpiegate” incident during Hurricane Dorian last year. The Trump administration denies this claim, however.
Last September, President Trump incorrectly stated that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. The Birmingham office of the National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tweeted in response that the state would not be impacted. Trump then doubled down on his claim and displayed a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map on Sept. 4 that appeared to be altered with a black marker to include Alabama in the storm’s path. Two days later, NOAA issued an unsigned statement that rebuked the Birmingham office. This led to calls for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to resign after he allegedly threatened to fire top officials if they did not walk back their contradiction of Trump.
The Commerce IG investigated the matter and released a summary report earlier this week. It said the department had a “flawed process” to release the unsigned statement; required NOAA to issue the statement, which “did not further NOAA’s or NWS’ interests;” and didn’t account for NWS employees’ public safety. However, Commerce IG Peggy Gustafson wrote to Ross on Wednesday expressing deep concerns over his department’s lack of cooperation to make the full report public.
“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 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 [Office of Inspector General] work, which is clearly contrary to the IG Act, [Office of Inspector General] independence, and good government. It also violates department policy to cooperate fully with OIG.”
Gustafson asked the department to provide her office with specific proposed redactions and specific privileges by July 9.
The Commerce Department said, however, that it cooperated with the IG as it provided “direct and unfettered access to information” and “proposed sensible redactions and write arounds to privileged information,” according to its official response to the memo as well as other documents obtained by Government Executive. Additionally, NOAA General Counsel John Luce suggested that officials consider re-evaluating the process for determining what information is privileged in order to avoid similar disputes in the future.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, stressed the importance of the inspector general publishing the full report to inform lawmakers and the public.
"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,” she said. “As long as the department continues to suppress this report, this is not the case.”
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