JUNEAU, Alaska — Just five years ago, Charles Monnett was one of the scientists whose observation that several polar bears had drowned in the Arctic Ocean helped galvanize the global warming movement.
Now, the wildlife biologist is on administrative leave and facing accusations of scientific misconduct.
The federal agency where he works told him he was on leave pending the results of an investigation into "integrity issues." A watchdog group believes it has to do with the 2006 journal article about the bear, but a source familiar with the investigation said late Thursday that placing Monnett on leave had nothing to with scientific integrity or the article.
The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation, wouldn't comment further.
The watchdog, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed a complaint on Monnett's behalf Thursday with the agency, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Investigators have not yet told Monnett of the specific charges or questions related to the scientific integrity of his work, said Jeff Ruch, the watchdog group's executive director. His group released excerpts of interviews investigators conducted with Monnett and fellow researcher Jeffrey Gleason, in which they were questioned about the observations that led to the article.
Whatever the outcome, the investigation comes at a time when climate change activists and those who are skeptical about global warming are battling over the credibility of scientists' work.
Members of both sides, however, said that it was too early to make any pronouncements about the case, particularly since the agency has not yet released the details of the allegations against him.
Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the case reinforces the group's position that people should be more skeptical about the work of climate change scientists.
Even if every scientist is objective, "what we're being asked to do is turn our economy around and spend trillions and trillions of dollars on the basis of" climate change claims, he said.
Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she's not alarmed by the handling of the case so far.
Grifo said the allegations made in the complaint filed by Ruch's group are premature and said people should wait to see what, if anything, comes of the inspector general's investigation.
Beyond the climate change debate, the investigation also focuses attention on an Obama administration policy intended to protect scientists from political interference.
The complaint seeks Monnett's reinstatement and a public apology from the agency and inspector general, whose office is conducting the probe.
The group's filing also seeks to have the investigation dropped or to have the charges specified and the matter carried out quickly and fairly, as the Obama policy states.
BOEMRE, which oversees leasing and development of offshore drilling, was created last year in the reorganization of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which oversaw offshore drilling.
The MMS was abolished after the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The agency was accused of being too close to oil and gas industry interests. A congressional report last year found MMS Alaska was vulnerable to lawsuits and allegations of scientific misconduct.
The agency announced steps to improve.
On July 18, BOEMRE told the longtime Anchorage-based Monnett that he was being put on leave, pending the investigation, according to the complaint. BOEMRE has barred Monnett from speaking to reporters, Ruch said.
Monnett could not immediately be reached Thursday.
His wife, Lisa Rotterman, a fellow scientist who worked with Monnett for years, including at BOEMRE's predecessor agency, said the case did not come out of the blue.
Rotterman said Monnett had come under fire in the past within the agency for speaking the truth about what the science showed. She said the 2006 article wasn't framed in the context of climate change but was relevant to the topic.
She feared what happened to Monnett would send a "chilling message" at the agency just as important oil and gas development decisions in the Arctic will soon be made.
"I don't believe the timing is coincidental," she said.
Rotterman said Monnett's work included identifying questions that needed to be answered to inform the environmental analyses the agency must conduct before issuing drilling permits.
"This is a time when sowing doubt in the public's mind about whether those findings can be trusted or not, that makes people think, I don't know what to believe," she said.
Monnett coordinated much of BOEMRE's research on Arctic wildlife and ecology, had duties that included managing about $50 million worth of studies, according to the complaint.
The agency said other scientists would manage the studies in his absence.
According to documents provided by Ruch's group, which sat in on investigators' interviews with Monnett, the questioning focused on observations that he and researcher Jeffrey Gleason made in 2004.
At the time, they were conducting an aerial survey of bowhead whales, and saw four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. There were other witnesses, according to Ruch, and low-resolution photos show floating white blobs.
Monnett and Gleason detailed their observations in an article published two years later in the journal Polar Biology. In the peer-reviewed article, they said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of the bears floating dead and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances.
Polar bears are considered strong swimmers, they wrote, but long-distance swims may exact a greater metabolic toll than standing or walking on ice in better weather.
They said their observations suggested the bears drowned in rough seas and high winds. They also added that the findings "suggest that drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues."
The article and presentations drew national attention and helped make the polar bear a symbol for the global warming movement. Former vice president and climate change activist Al Gore mentioned the animal in his Oscar-winning global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."
The complaint said agency officials harassed Gleason and Monnett, and that they received negative comments after the journal article. Gleason took another Interior Department job; he didn't respond to an email and a BOEMRE spokeswoman said he wouldn't be available for comment.
In May 2008, the bear was classified as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming.
According to a transcript, provided by Ruch's group, Ruch asked investigator Eric May, during questioning of Monnett in February, for specifics about the allegations. May replied: "well, scientific misconduct, basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations."
Monnett said that alleging scientific misconduct "suggests that we did something deliberately to deceive or to, to change it. Um, I sure don't see any indication of that in what you're asking me about."