Jun 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Independent panel finds NOAA leadership violated code of ethics in "Sharpiegate"


President Trump gives an Oval Office briefing on the status of Hurricane Dorian, Sept. 4. Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

An independent panel commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that two top officials violated the agency’s code of ethics during a series of events that led to an NOAA statement contradicting its own meteorologists to support President Trump’s false claims about the path of Hurricane Dorian.

Why it matters: The September episode, which came to be known as "Sharpiegate" after Trump drew on a map of Hurricane Dorian's path to support his assessment that it could hit Alabama, embroiled the NOAA in a scandal about possible political interference within the scientific agency.

Catch up quick: After Trump claimed that the category 5 hurricane could hit Alabama, the NOAA's Birmingham office issued a tweet stressing that the state "will NOT see any impacts from Dorian."

  • NOAA then said in an unsigned statement a few days later that the Birmingham office's tweet was “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time," claiming there was a 20% chance of the storm hitting Alabama.
  • Internal NOAA emails released through a freedom of information request later revealed top officials expressing alarm at what they viewed as a political intervention in a scientific matter.
  • The agency's acting chief scientist Craig McLean pledged to investigate the episode in September, calling the NOAA's response a "danger to public health and safety."

Acting administrator Neil Jacobs, one of the officials who the independent panel found violated the agency's code of ethics, thanked the Birmingham forecasters days after the episode in an emotional address and said that "weather should not be a partisan issue."

  • The other official is former NOAA deputy chief of staff and communications director Julie Kay Roberts.

What they're saying:

“The Panel concludes that Jacobs and Roberts felt that the situation they were in was out of their hands and their actions were driven by the direction of unnamed and uninterviewed Commerce officials who may well have been the subjects of the redactions. While there may be found causes of sympathy for the oppressed and meek subordinates of domineering autocratic ogres, I hardly can find sympathy in this scintilla of an argument for clemency. If not the single highest person in NOAA, who will stand for the Scientific Integrity of the agency and the trust our public needs to invest in our scientific process and products?"
— Acting NOAA chief scientist Craig McLean

The other side: Both Jacobs and Roberts contest the panel's findings that they violated the ethics code.

  • Roberts says that she raised concerns about the language in the statement, but insisted that it was directed by officials at the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA.

Read the report.

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