Inquiry Prompted by Trump’s Hurricane Dorian Claim Is Being Blocked, Investigator Says
WASHINGTON — The Department of Commerce is preventing the release of an investigation’s findings into whether it coerced the head of a federal agency into supporting President Trump’s erroneous claim that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama last year, the department’s inspector general said on Wednesday.
In a memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the inspector general, Peggy E. Gustafson, said that staff in his department had “thwarted” the publication of her report. According to Ms. Gustafson’s memo, the department has said portions of that report contain information that cannot be made public, but will not say which ones.
The department’s refusal to cooperate with the release of the investigation “appears to be directly linked to the content of our report and the findings of responsibility of the high-level individuals involved,” Ms. Gustafson wrote.
She compared the move to the department vetoing her investigation, a significant statement given that an inspector general’s office is designed to conduct inquiries that are independent from the agency being examined.
The inspector general’s investigation looks at events surrounding Hurricane Dorian, which struck the United States in September. On Sept. 1, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that Dorian, which was then approaching the East Coast of the United States, would hit Alabama “harder than anticipated.”
A few minutes later, the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Ala. — which is part of NOAA and under the Department of Commerce — posted on Twitter: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”
Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.
Five days later, the office of Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, issued an unsigned statement calling the Birmingham office’s Twitter posting “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.” That unsigned statement turned out to be the result of pressure from the White House on Secretary Ross, who oversees NOAA and who threatened to fire the political staff at NOAA unless the contradiction of Mr. Trump was addressed.
In a report last month, NOAA concluded that Dr. Jacobs’s statement violated the agency’s code of conduct. But that report did not address the actions of Secretary Ross or other officials at the Commerce Department. The inspector general’s report would have been a more detailed official account of what led to the statement by NOAA’s leadership.
The only information that has been released regarding the findings of Ms. Gustafson’s investigation is a short document posted on the inspector general’s website, which says the department “led a flawed process” and “required NOAA to issue a statement that did not further NOAA’s or NWS’s interests,” a reference to the National Weather Service.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce late Wednesday said the department was still preparing its formal response.
The inspector general’s memo was met with concern from Democrats.
“It is disturbing that the Department of Commerce appears to be obstructing the Office of Inspector General from releasing its report on an incident surrounding political interference into the communication of Hurricane Dorian forecasts,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas and chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has written about the watchdog system, said she wasn’t aware of other departments’ having blocked an inspector general’s report in this way.
Richard L. Revesz, a law professor and director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University Law School, said events described in the memo amounted to “uncharted waters” and reflected a broader pattern of the Trump administration’s actions toward inspectors general at other agencies.
“The inspectors general are part of a system of ensuring that agencies operate within the law,” Mr. Revesz said. “Every citizen should actually care about that.”
In May, the administration fired the inspector general at the State Department, locking him out of his office and his email, and replacing him with an associate of Vice President Mike Pence’s. Mr. Trump also fired the inspector general of the office of the director of national intelligence, and demoted the acting inspector general for the Defense Department.
“I think we’ve been treated very unfairly by inspector generals,” the president said in May.