‘Sharpiegate’ Controversy Laid to Uneasy Rest

WASHINGTON (CN) — Putting a cap on last fall’s dustup known as “Sharpiegate,” a report released Monday found National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials committed ethical violations in a September statement that suggested Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian.

Across 58 pages, the report prepared for NOAA by the National Academy of Public Administration delves into the events following President Trump’s erroneous tweet on Sept. 1 warning that Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian.

Sharpiegate, Sept. 4, 2019. (AP photo/Evan Vucci)

Seeking to tamp down concern from Alabamans, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office 20 minutes later corrected the record with a tweet of its own stating simply that Dorian was not a threat to Alabama.

“We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama,” the tweet stated.

But Trump repeatedly maintained he was correct about the path of the storm, culminating in a Sept. 4 gaggle in the Oval Office in which Trump displayed a map of Dorian’s predicted trajectory, which had been manually extended into Alabama with a marker.

The report released Monday mentions the infamous “Sharpiegate” gaggle, but focuses primarily on a Sept. 6 statement from NOAA that said Alabama was for a time at risk of tropical storm-force winds and disavowed the Sept. 1 tweet from the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service.

“The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with the probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time,” the statement said in part.

In between the initial Trump tweet and the pivotal statement, the report shows NOAA and Department of Commerce staffers scrambled behind the scenes to respond to what had by then become a national news story.

This included changing policies about interacting with press, directing all media inquiries to the central NOAA communications office and explicitly telling forecasters not to speak with reporters on Twitter.

The Sept. 6 statement was drafted before 10:30 a.m. on Department of Commerce deputy general counsel David Dewhirst’s table and edited and submitted for agency officials’ approval over the next six hours, according to the report.

The stakes of the statement were high. Those who attended the meeting thought their jobs were are risk, with acting NOAA director Neil Jacobs telling investigators that given “the amount of panic and concern, and getting called at 3 in the morning, it was pretty well implied that this was something that was a fireable offense if you disobeyed.”

In a phone call around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 6, Commerce Department Chief of Staff Mike Walsh told NOAA Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications Julie Roberts that “there are jobs on the line.”

Roberts told investigators she believed Walsh was suggesting that Jacobs or people in the Birmingham office could be shown the door.

Ultimately, the report concludes Roberts and Jacobs committed ethical violations in drafting the Sept. 6 statement that disavowed the Birmingham tweet.

“Further the panel finds that they engaged in the 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,” the report states.

But the report cautions that despite its findings, Roberts and Jacobs did express concerns about the statement, only to be overridden by people higher up in the Commerce Department.

According to the report, Roberts and Jacobs wanted to ax the portion of the statement that mentioned Birmingham, but were told they could not take it out.

The report recommends NOAA require staffers undergo scientific integrity training and develop policies for public communications about scientific findings and the role of political appointees. It does not recommend any sort of formal discipline for either Roberts or Jacobs. 

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