- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

An investigation of federal scientists who submitted inauthentic samples to a national lynx survey found a lack of scientific rigor and poor judgment but no criminal intent, said a report by Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, released by the Interior Department last night.
The report said the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, who said they sent hair samples from a captive lynx and a pelt to test a lab's ability to identify lynx hair using DNA testing.
The employees, whose names have not been released, were counseled for what the report called "a pattern of bad judgment," but Mr. Devaney recommended "more meaningful punishment" and additional administrative action against other employees in the regional office and headquarters.
"The policy decision by FWS to administer 'corrective action' in lieu of meaningful punishment displays a cultural bias against holding employees accountable for their behavior," Mr. Devaney said.
Lawmakers expressed concern that the false samples, which will be used to determine how to protect the lynx, could have forced the closure of roads to vehicle traffic in national forests. Also banned in lynx habitat are off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, skis, snowshoes, livestock grazing and tree thinning.
The inspector general said he "tends to believe the assertion" the employees submitted the samples to test the lab's accuracy. However, assertions that there was no prior knowledge that a Washington state agency was submitting similar inauthentic samples during the same time "is simply not credible," he wrote.
The incidents were first reported by The Washington Times in December, and outraged lawmakers immediately called for congressional hearings and investigations.
Mr. Devaney agreed with federal officials who have said since the incident was uncovered that the samples "ultimately were determined to have no negative effect on the lynx survey or the management of the forest in which the samples were reportedly found."
The biologists and the Washington state agency submitted at least three inauthentic samples of lynx hair as part of a three-year survey to determine Canadian lynx habitat in 16 states and 57 national forests. The hair samples were labeled as having been recovered from national forests, but in fact were taken from captive lynx and at least one pelt.
The employees were given a salary bonus after it was discovered that they had violated the study protocol.
"Awarding the involved employees with monies and specifically praising their work on the lynx study so soon after the incident is not only an incredible display of bad judgment, but also highlights FWS's excessively liberal award policy and practice, which the OIG has criticized in the past," Mr. Devaney wrote.
The findings of a separate investigation by the General Accounting Office will be released at a March 7 congressional hearing. The investigation was requested by Republican Reps. James V. Hansen of Utah, House Resources chairman, and Scott McInnis of Colorado, Resources forest and forest health subcommittee chairman.
"I look forward to hearing the GAO's testimony next week, where they've investigated all three of the agencies involved. Certainly, there are parts of the IG's investigation that are very alarming," Mr. McInnis said.
"The idea that these people got a merit pay raise, in conjunction with the same lynx study they undermined, no less, quite literally boggles the mind. It shows the kind of brazen mind-set we're up against," Mr. McInnis said.
Investigations also were initiated by the Interior Department, at the request of Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton.
The inspector general at the Agriculture Department, where the Forest Service is housed, also is investigating the incident.
The employees were counseled for their actions, but Mr. Devaney recommended "more meaningful punishment for those previously counseled" and additional administrative action against other employees in the regional office and headquarters.
Mr. McInnis said the IG's recommendations are "right on target" but questioned whether the intent of the employees was to test laboratory accuracy.
"On the one hand, the IG says this particular biologist isn't credible, and on the other, the IG says he tends to believe his story about testing the lab," Mr. McInnis said.
Mr. Devaney also recommended that Mrs. Norton convene a working group to "review and make recommendations on how to restore rigorous science to the Endangered Species program" and implement a scientific code of ethics.
In releasing the findings, Mrs. Norton issued a brief statement saying she has instructed top Fish and Wildlife Service officials to "review the report and make recommendations to me to address its findings."
Interior investigators conducted more than 20 interviews and reviewed "countless documents" in their inquiry, which was limited to the behavior of employees in their agency.
"Examples of bad judgment ranged from unauthorized sample submissions by field biologists to the failure of regional and headquarters managers to recognize the significance of the incident and to execute timely and appropriate responses," Mr. Devaney said.


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