But this time, USGS was slow to respond to several queries. According to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by POLITICO, early that morning Wackowski sent an email to the USGS regional director reminding her that any inquiries related to the wildlife refuge needed to go through him; this was a departure from the usual protocol for handling a major natural disaster, which allows USGS to bypass even normal channels of approval within the public affairs office “when timeliness is critical for public health and/or safety.” Instead, Wackowski told USGS he wanted to review media requests and be given time to “pipe up on any concerns” before interviews with staff scientists were granted.
More than 24 hours later, and long after the state’s earthquake center had put out a news release stating that it “anticipate[d] a very active aftershock sequence,” USGS officials were still asking Wackowski if the agency’s leading expert on the subject could share information with the media.
“What made this unusual is that USGS had to seek permission to talk about an earthquake,” a former USGS employee familiar with the department’s response told me. Even then, USGS had to assure DOI officials it would not comment on the potential impact of the earthquake on future oil and gas development in the refuge—one of the most important and politically sensitive priorities for this administration—according to emails leaked to POLITICO.
Because the quake happened in such a remote location and there were no injuries it barely registered outside of Alaska. But Wackowski’s attempt to control the messaging is part of a broader pattern in DOI to limit debate and discussion on anything to do with the refuge. Wackowski, according to several career employees, has made it difficult for them to freely share information that might be perceived as hindering the administration’s pro-development agenda. He has also suggested that FWS staff could be removed from the review team or even lose their jobs if they raised concerns about the science or imposed overly restrictive measures on oil and gas development in the region. “If you come across as not being on board with that, your name could get elevated to Steve Wackowski as an obstructionist,” one FWS employee who has since left the agency was told by a supervisor.
Even as Wackowski has influenced the flow of information within his agency, he has actively sought data outside the department from a former colleague, a violation of his ethics pledge, according to a report by the DOI’s inspector general. Wackowski has been intimately involved in the research and review process for seismic surveys in the refuge. He communicated and met with a former colleague who does polar bear data collection and mapping on the North Slope. This triggered an ethics investigation by DOI’s inspector general. According to the recently released report, a DOI ethics attorney said that if they had known about Wackowski’s contact with his former colleague “they would have advised against it.”
DOI wouldn’t confirm that Wackowski was the subject of the report but told The Hill in an emailed statement: “The report is clear that the senior interior official in question acted responsibly and with the highest integrity.” The statement also attributed the events to a “miscommunication and misunderstanding” between Wackowski and the ethics office.
Before he joined DOI, Wackowski spent several years doing drone-operated survey work for Fairweather Science, a company that provides an array of services to oil and gas companies operating in the region. Fairweather is one of the only companies that conducts polar bear den monitoring using infrared cameras, which has become an increasingly important part of the permitting process as sea ice diminishes and greater numbers of bears come inland to den during the winter months. The refuge’s coastal plain has become an especially critical region for polar bears, with the highest density of denning habitat along the North Slope.
According to the inspector general’s report, in late 2017, Wackowski requested polar bear data from his former colleague to be used for a “FWS/USGS/BLM science experiment.” The Trump administration’s ethics pledge prohibits political appointees from meeting with former employers for two years; Wackowski, who had been working for Fairweather until he joined DOI, was communicating with his former colleague just several months after he was appointed, which the IG’s report considered to fall under its prohibition. The following year, Wackowski participated in a meeting with the same colleague in which polar bear research and data was discussed. He did not contact the DOI’s ethic’s office on either occasion. Wackowski told the IG that he believed conflict of interest rules did not apply to communication involving “purely scientific data” even though no such exemption exists for current federal employees .
Transparency advocates and some career DOI employees point to the fact that the founder and vice president of Fairweather Science was also CEO of the company that is currently seeking approval to conduct seismic surveys of the refuge. Wackowski met with his former boss at least twice, including on one occasion in November 2018, with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, according to calendars and other records obtained by POLITICO. Notably, DOI ethics officials had approved the meetings reasoning that Wackowski’s former boss was not representing Fairweather but SAExploration, the company actually applying for the permit. “We found no evidence that the employee made anything less than a full disclosure of all relevant circumstances in discussions with ethics attorneys about the companies,” according to the report.
Delaney Marsco, the Campaign Legal Center’s general counsel focusing on government ethics and accountability, says it is precisely these kinds of meetings with former employers who currently have business before the department that government ethics laws are designed to prevent. “It raises very serious questions surrounding the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Marsco said.