'Sharpiegate' probe elicits rebuke from Commerce IG

The Inspector General at the Department of Commerce is publicly complaining that the agency is using concerns about redactions as cover for blocking the complete release of a critical report surrounding the president's 2019 misstatements about the path of Hurricane Dorian.

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The Inspector General at the Department of Commerce is publicly complaining that the agency is using concerns about redactions as cover for blocking the complete release of a critical report.

The report covers a well-known 2019 episode dubbed "Sharpiegate" in the media that drew ridicule and demands for investigations about the scientific integrity of Commerce Department component agencies.

Specially, the OIG investigated a move by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to rebuke in an unsigned statement a tweet from the NOAA National Weather Service's Birmingham, Ala., office that contradicted public and demonstrably false statements by President Donald Trump that NOAA had predicted that Hurricane Dorian would make landfall in Alabama. In a memorable Oval Office appearance, Trump displayed a NOAA image mounted on a poster with a line drawn in black ink extending the projected path of the storm to include Alabama's Gulf Coast.

The OIG report was issued with redactions on June 26. In concluded that "The Department required NOAA to issue a Statement that did not further NOAA’s or NWS’s interests."

Commerce IG Peggy Gustafson, in a July 1 memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, urged agency officials to bring the episode to a close by making final decisions about any redactions and documenting the reasons for those redactions.

"To the extent any material is potentially privileged, it should be specifically claimed by the Department and its stakeholders, not OIG—a party that does not own the privileges," Gustafson wrote. "OIG cannot be expected to blindly divine the positon of the Department and interagency stakeholders without specific privilege claims to specific portions."

Essentially, Gustafson is challenging Ross and his staff to either release the report in unredacted form or "provide formal privilege markings—that are precise and unambiguous and include the privilege being claimed."

Gustafson also said that the relations between OIG and Commerce worsened as the report neared completion.

"This tone shift appears to be directly linked to the content of our report and the findings of responsibility of the high-level individuals involved. I am concerned that the substance of our report and findings has resulted in this retaliatory posturing," she wrote.

For Gustafson, principles of IG independence – considered by many to be under threat during the Trump administration – are at stake.

"To allow the Department’s all-encompassing and opaque assertion of privilege to stand is to effectively grant the Department a pocket veto over the completion and issuance of final OIG work, which is clearly contrary to the IG Act, OIG independence, and good government," Gustafson wrote. "It also violates Department policy to cooperate fully with OIG."