- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Two left-leaning watchdog groups have emerged as the first defenders of biologists who planted false evidence of a rare cat in national forests.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics say no wrong was committed and that the employees are targets of a political "witch hunt."

"This is a case of right-wing politicians conducting a witch hunt against agency scientists, said Eric Wingerter, PEER field director.

Andy Stahl, director of the Forest Service group called the ensuing investigations by multiple federal agencies a "witch hunt in search of a false conspiracy."

"It's really about well-intentioned scientists trying to make sure a process works properly but who got caught crosswise by political actors who took what happened and twisted it," Mr. Stahl told the Christian Science Monitor.

A retiring employee informed his supervisor that he and six other employees from the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife planted false samples of a Canadian lynx in the survey. The employees say they were testing the lab. The identities of the employees has been kept confidential by the agencies.

The Forest Service began an investigation but hit a dead end when some employees refused to cooperate. A new investigation has been opened by the Interior and Agriculture departments' inspectors general and the General Accounting Office.

The two watchdog groups normally defend whistleblowers against their agencies. In this case, however, they are defending the employees and the government for taking only minimal action against them counseling.

PEER even went so far as to accuse lawmakers investigating the matter of violating the Hatch Act a law that limits political interference in the hiring process and which is intended to prevent patronage.

PEER said four Republicans Reps. James V. Hansen of Utah, Scott McInnis of Colorado and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, and Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho violated the law by sending letters to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman asking them to investigate the charges and fire employees if found guilty.

"This a transparent attempt to divert Congress' attention away from the renegade behavior of agenda-driven biologists. If these folks think that a press release and a false allegation are going to detour this investigation, they're obviously not paying attention," Mr. McInnis said.

"These people can mislead and obfuscate and make excuses all they want, but the fact is this rogue element of federal biologists has jeopardized the credibility of the entire national lynx survey and Congress has an obligation to look in to it," Mr. McInnis said.

The Interior Department dismissed the accusations of a partisan witch hunt and possible Hatch Act violations.

"We are working like mad to make absolutely sure there is zero partisanship in this process, and that is why we immediately asked the inspector general, an independent and nonpartisan body, to look into the facts and circumstances of the allegations," Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle said.

"Unfortunately, this special interest group is trying to shove politics into the process at every turn, that is why they launched this phony attack about letters we received from members of Congress," Mr. Pfeifle said.

The effect of the threat might have been blunted by technical problems with the letter. PEER forgot to fill in blanks left to specify fines and other information, and also cited a 1993 version of the act that was repealed four years later.

"After reading their bogus letter, I doubt they could tell the Hatch Act from a hatched egg," Mr. Pfeifle said.

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