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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

KENYAN CO-LEADER OF ROOSEVELT EXPEDITION SLAMS SMITHSONIAN NMNH'S CHARGES AGAINST KRIS HELGEN


The letter below was supplied by Bernard Agwanda--a mammalogist at the National Museums of Kenya and one of the four co-leaders of the Kenya expedition including Kris Helgen--to Helgen's attorney to be used in his defense of the current charges against him lodged by the National Museum of Natural History. Agwanda, who was interviewed for my article for The Verge on this case, kindly provided it to me and gave me permission to make it public. I think it speaks for itself in many ways. A couple of people are named in it: Molly McDonough, a postdoctoral fellow at NMNH who was a member of the expedition; and Priscillar Mutungi, the KWS technician mentioned in the article as the supposed "inspector" of the samples at issue. To fit this blog page I have made some formatting changes in the original letter, but it is reproduced in full with no changes or cuts in the text. I think it will shed considerable light on the problems with the museum's investigation of these charges, and provide some insights into their likely validity.
Date: 13th August 2016

To Whom It May Concern:

Subject: False allegations against Kristofer Helgen regarding Mt Kenya Expedition in 2015

It has come to my notice that Dr Kristofer Helgen is facing allegations of misconduct from Smithsonian management regarding our Mt Kenya expedition (Roosevelt Re-survey project) in Kenya in 2015. This has shocked me because:

1. I was and I still am the project’s Kenyan counterpart PI at the sponsoring Kenyan institution (National Museums Kenya, NMK), and I was thus an integral part of the project planning and implementing team, and I worked with due diligence to follow all relevant laws and policies and guide the project accordingly.

2. As part of the project leadership, I have never received any communications from the Smithsonian or from Kenyan institutions/persons requesting for a statement to confirm/dispel accusations against Kris regarding Kenyan samples and permissions.

3. As far as I can see, there is no Kenyan institution accusing Kris of misconduct, rather, the accusations are generated within USA by Smithsonian specifically.

I’m deeply shocked and saddened that Kris has been subjected to not one but at least two separate investigations on the same case, for the last 9-months, by SI officials who didn’t find it necessary to consult the Kenyan sponsor, Co-PI, and co-organizer over these ridiculous allegations. This is as disrespectful as it is flawed. Are these investigating persons genuinely after the truth on this case? Or is the case against Kris really about the expedition in Kenya, or are there other motivations by Smithsonian parties? These are the questions my mind has been grappling with since I received the news.

While I find it distasteful to try to answer such obviously false incriminations against Kris, I wish to force myself to speak to these allegations in order to defend his honour as he has done no wrong. I first briefly highlight legal procedures of doing research in Kenya, because Smithsonian officials involved likely have very limited understanding of these matters.

A foreigner intending to undertake research in Kenya has to find an affiliation in a local institution competent in the discipline of that research. In this case, Kris applied and obtained affiliations with NMK (my employing institution). He went further to apply for affiliation with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

With affiliation, one can then apply for government of Kenya research permit under National Council for science and Technology (NACOSTI). Kris did this, obtaining overall research permit/clearance by Government of Kenya (GoK).

Next, in biodiversity research, the community around the site has to give consent in what is called Prior Informed Consent (PIC). The institutions holding mandate too must give consent, in this case KWS since it is a park, provided PIC. Because biological collections were involved, Kris insisted that NMK had to give him a statement of objection or no objection before going to the field. NMK gave him greenlight.

To go and research in a protected area (national park or forest reserve) one has to be cleared by KWS and KFS respectively. Since the Mt Kenya expedition was traversing both park and reserve, Kris applied for both KWS and KFS permission to:

--Enter the Mt Kenya National park and Forest reserve

--Conduct research in these protected areas

--Collect biological samples in the protected areas

With all these permissions, Kris went further and successfully applied for overarching government of Kenya biological sample export permit, under National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

One would expect that with overall GoK research clearance (NACOSTI) and overall GoK export permit (NEMA), the project is good to go. Kris however insisted on getting Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) with the institution legally mandated to manage biological collection-NMK. He also requested to meet NMK and KWS leaderships to ensure that even individual/personal concerns are fully addressed.

One can ask which project in Kenya has this level of permission! In my experience there is none.
These permits took us many months (nearly two years) to navigate, on top of the ridicule and emotions Kris was forced to contend with. The patience, commitment and devotion Kris put forward in order to obey local laws, institutional policies and to listen to personal concerns were formidable. Charges against Kristofer Helgen regarding this project, in view of these laws, and everyone’s familiarity with his character, have no merit.

Even though Kenya has many agencies looking after biological resources (KWS, KFS, NEMA, KARI, KEFRI), only one is mandated to take care of collections-NMK. Like in any other collection based expeditions, samples from Mt Kenya expedition are legal property of NMK (held in trust for the people of Kenya). It is for this reason that the MTA for this and others have a loan reference number. They are to be returned to NMK at expiry of loan or after concluding research. Specimen collections that Kris exported to USA are property of NMK on loan to SI. I realize suspicions have arisen about intentions over the various versions and drafts of the MTAs involved here at NMK, but I can personally vouch firsthand that Kris had no bad intentions in any action or engagement with me or NMK. I confirm as the project’s sponsor in Kenya that any issues reflect basic misunderstandings of the situation and plans. Kris regularly noted that the various MTA lists might need review and further attention from Smithsonian before export of samples to US. This all seems very strange. Why the Smithsonian should handle a loyal scientist like Kris with such distrust is shocking and very saddening to me. I see no way to understand this.

I am made to understand that Kris Helgen is also accused of illegally exporting wild dog samples from Kenya to the USA. There is no basis for this claim! The wild dog samples involved are various tissues which are NMK collections under my research program. The samples were to be analysed at University of California by myself and Prof Hillary Young, of which there is a parallel approval from University of California. These samples are of course legal (why have they been called illegal?) and are NOT associated with paperwork and permissions for Mt Kenya samples, in any way! To the very best of my knowledge, these samples have not left Kenya for USA or anywhere. Kris helped us with our requests about how to handle these specimens after they were left in Nairobi by Hillary, and he did so with NMK affiliation and permission. How can Kris Helgen be accused of exporting what was not his and was never exported. He was not involved in plans or paperwork for this project. It seems like this is a strange premise meant to pour suspicion on Kris.

It really shocks to hear that Kris Helgen is suspended and is considered for sacking because he is suspected to have tried/attempted to obstruct KWS officer from inspecting the samples collected on the expedition. Whereas it is me who picked a phone and called KWS officer, Priscillar, inviting her to catalogue our samples, it is actually Kris who instructed me to do so. How can he invite this person if he intends to “hide” what should be inspected!! There was never a plan to open frozen tanks for good reasons everyone understands. Are investigators really after the truth in this case? This is an imaginary charge.

The idea championed by Dr Molly McDonough to study genomics or transcriptome of small mammals was associated with two conditions: a) muscle tissues were to be extracted within one minute of knocking down the animal and putting straight to the liquid nitrogen, b) the samples were to be protected from thermal shock. This idea was hatched in middle camp (where Molly and I were based) but enjoyed support in all the 3 camps including by Kris and Hillary. The concern that sample ‘inspection’ by KWS employee could compromise integrity of these samples was therefore discussed in a meeting where everybody attended in the lower camp, and was discussed between Kris, Hillary, and KWS leadership in advance. Everyone was aware of this plan. How this issue has become an accusation toward Kris who was in Australia and how it has become painted as a plan to hide samples from KWS officer is unfathomable.

I categorically and emphatically state that the charges pressed against Dr Kristofer Helgen are baseless, have no merit and are untrue. If investigation had professional aim and respect for Kenyan situation, they would contact me as partner scientist in Kenya. This could have happened almost a year ago and I could explain situation to exonerate Kris, instead he has suffered.

I also wish to reiterate that a report on the Roosevelt Resurvey Project is long overdue for submission to NEMA and NACOSTI here in Kenya. As the Kenyan counterpart for this project, this puts me under a lot of pressure to submit the reports. We cannot proceed because Smithsonian staff and review have blocked any study or further export of specimens. This is damaging to investment from NMK and all partners and making my situation challenging.

I would have thought that everyone knows Kris never breaks rules and is loyal to his museum. He is a senior mammalogist deserving respect. I am appalled by his treatment. I appeal to the leadership of NMNH-SI to at long last look with sense at the true picture, and allow Kris to continue with his research, especially on the Roosevelt samples so that he can send us the report and we can maintain good faith partnerships and move on with the science from this important and long planned expedition and collaboration.

Finally, I advise, as Curator of Mammals at NMK and the Kenyan co-PI in the project that if Smithsonian continues to pursue action against Kris under false pretence, I must insist that NMNH is required to repatriate all the specimens back to Kenya immediately to enable further analysis and reporting. I hope the investigating committee will choose the path of truth and justice over malice and rumour.

Thank you

//signed

Bernard Agwanda

Curator and Research Scientist





























60 comments:

Michael Balter said...

I should have noted that the bold-facing is Dr. Agwanda's original emphasis and was not added by me.

Michael Balter said...

I also want to draw readers' attention to the fact that Agwanda deals in his letter with all three charges against Helgen:

1. The alleged copying of Maureen Kearney's signature on an MTA.

2. Alleged attempts to illegally export specimens.

3. Alleged attempts to hide specimens from KWS staff.

Michael Balter said...

There appears to be a problem with the comment posting facility, if anyone has been trying to comment and was unable to please contact me through michaelbalter.com so I can see how serious the problem is.

thanks, Michael

Anonymous said...

Comment in Two Parts. Part One.

I was discussing this case with a former colleague who raised a compelling point that I think merits discussion here. Some of Dr. Helgen’s accusers may have made their accusations with a gross misunderstanding of how whistleblower protection laws may apply to them. In legal practice, we strongly advise government employees to obtain legal counsel before whistleblowing. It appears that one or more of Dr. Helgen’s accusers or someone in the Smithsonian may have failed to take appropriate precautions, or, more troubling, may have been incorrectly advised internally about how whistleblower protections apply. This could discourage future whistleblowers with legitimate concerns and have real, negative consequences for any accusers who acted on a good faith belief they were blowing the whistle.

As background, the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) protects federal employees from retaliatory personnel decisions for whistleblowing, but it does not protect federal employees from civil liability related to their whistleblowing. This distinction is important, because a frequent defense tactic for scientists accused of misconduct is to bring a defamation claim against the their accusers. For a scientist to prevail on a defamation claim in court, the scientist must prove the following elements: (1) the accuser made a false statement of fact about the scientist (2) to a third party (3) either intentionally or negligently, which (4) harmed the scientist. To prevail in a civil case (as opposed to criminal), the injured scientists needs only prove that it is more likely than not (greater than 50% chance) that these actions occurred. These cases can come down to a coin flip by the jury, and the sympathetic nature of Dr. Helgen’s case could easily push a jury to find in his favor.

I should highlight that accusers do not need to intentionally make a false statement to be liable for defamation. A person can still be found liable if he or she did not use reasonable care when making a false statement. This distinction is important here where the accusation may have been a misunderstanding of Dr. Helgen’s instructions, rather than concrete facts. That distinction could be enough for a court to find lack of reasonable care.

There is, however, a common law doctrine of “qualified privilege” that protects whistleblowers from civil liability for defamation. The doctrine of qualified privilege protects whistleblowers from civil liability for defamation if the whistleblower made the statement to an authority for a legitimate reason, such as protecting the public interest or protecting the accuser’s interests. However, qualified privilege will not apply where:

-The whistleblower knows the defamatory statements are false or makes the defamatory statements with reckless disregard for the truth;
-The defamatory statements are made for a reason that is outside the scope of privilege;
-The defamatory statements are made to persons who are not reasonably necessary to protect the public interest; or
-The defamatory statements are not reasonably necessary.

Kieran Dwyer, Esq.

Michael Balter said...

Comment in Two Parts. Part Two.

In Dr. Helgen’s case, there are a number of reasons qualified privilege might not protect his accusers. First, Dr. Helgen appears to have at least a colorable claim that the one or more accusers made false statements with reckless disregard for the truth. This “reckless disregard” could be as simple as the distinction between alleging that Dr. Helgen instructed that certain samples be concealed vs. the alleging that Dr. Helgen instructed that certain samples be kept in liquid nitrogen during an inspection. Second, false rumors have been circulating about Dr. Helgen. If those rumors originated from any accuser making a defamatory statement to uninvolved third parties, those statements would not be not protected by the qualified privilege (Nor would the Smithsonian be obligated to defend that accuser, leaving him or her to hire defense attorneys on their own).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, this example of whistleblowing may have exceeded the bounds of protected whistleblowing. As a direct result, Dr. Helgen has suffered damage from the rumors and and an accuser who failed to exercise proper care could face significant financial liability if sued and found by a jury to have defamed Mr. Helgen.

It’s for these reasons that whistleblowers need to be careful in how they proceed when reporting suspected misconduct. As a matter of practice, whistleblowers should consult with an attorney before reporting suspected misconduct, report suspected misconduct only to the proper authorities, and never discuss the allegations with non-privileged third-parties. Note: the legal considerations for whistleblowing to the press are different and not discussed here.

My words of caution are not meant to discourage whistleblowing. To the contrary, whistleblowing serves a very important public policy function. However, whistleblowers need to be informed of the risks involved, and need to take appropriate protections. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that provide whistleblowers with resources to help understand the issues involved.

I hope in this case that Dr. Helgen and any accusers who acted in good faith can all escape this matter without lasting damage to their careers. However, that result depends on the Smithsonian upholding fair process for Dr. Helgen, as well as the accusers ensuring that their statements to the Smithsonian are as factually accurate and unembellished as possible. If anyone embellished or overstated their accusations in anyway, I would argue the best course of action is to immediately and unequivocally correct those statements to minimize the damage they inflict. As I noted before, at this point, the best way for Dr. Helgen’s accusers to avoid liability for defamation is for Dr. Helgen to be vindicated. If he’s fired, the accusers who stepped over the line could be liable to Dr. Helgen for any damage to his reputation, potentially including any loss in salary that may result.

None of this analysis is meant to suggest that any specific individual named in the article did not act in good faith or actually committed defamation. However, the facts of the case suggest that at some point in the process, someone was not taking proper precautions to protect whistleblower status. If Dr. Helgen is unfairly terminated from the Smithsonian, these failures could unfortunately implicate even whistleblowers who acted in good faith. Ultimately, the unjustified spreading of rumors in this case could have negative consequences for innocent actors, and perhaps more problematic, stifle future whistleblowers.

This is my personal analysis of the situation based solely on the facts as presented in Mr. Balter’s article. This information is not offered to provide legal advice and I do not represent anyone involved in this case.

Kieran Dwyer, Esq.

Anonymous said...

Kieran Dwyer,

I think the part that is missing from your analysis is the potential that the accusers may have thought they were being instructed to do something illegal by Helgen. Helgen was not in Kenya at the time. If this were a case of smuggling endangered species out of Kenya and into the USA, then it is the accusers who would have actually done the smuggling and the accusers who would have faced the more severe penalties including steep fines and imprisonment. Surely "I think my boss instructed me to commit a very serious crime, I am refusing, and I am reporting it up the chain of command, but I am later proven to be mistaken" falls into a different category from "I think I saw my boss break the law but he actually didn't".

In this reporting I've seen no evidence to suggest Helgen broke the law and Agwanda's letter is particularly convincing. Yet if we assume they misunderstood the nature of the samples in question, I've also seen no evidence presented that his accusers did anything wrong either. Balter's AMNH sources maligning Helgen have plenty of motivation to speak ill of a fast rising competitor without having to resort to the assumption that Helgen's staff was the source of their opinions. Those sources seem to be the only weak thread that might suggest the accusers have out their torches and pitchforks even after the situation was cleared up. The wrongdoing here may rest solely (and severely) with the higher-ups at the Smithsonian.

Michael Balter said...

I think the last commenter raises some important points that I will be exploring in my future reporting.

As I've said before, I have never thought it likely that Darrin, Esther and Nicole deliberately conspired to frame Helgen and get him fired (nor Gary Graves either.) Rather, my original article The Verge suggested various contexts and biases that may have led to misunderstandings by the three accusers of what was going on with those samples in Kenya. The fact that it was all being done by email certainly did not help.

When the accusers returned to DC they reported their suspicions/allegations and they were investigated, first by OIG and then by Gary Graves. However Graves was aided and abetted by the very higher-ups at the NMNH the commenter alludes to; I know who they are, and in the reporting I have done since The Verge story I have begun to understand their individual roles better.

My reporting will soon turn to that subject, which is long overdue in this whole saga.

Michael Balter said...

Just to complete the thought above.

The key question that remains to be explored is: Once presented by the accusations from the three colleagues in collections, did Gary Graves and administrators above him mount a fair and impartial investigation, or did they--for various reasons that involved their own biases--sort of run with the charges enthusiastically because they saw that they could lead to the downfall of an up-and-coming star researcher? If so, then it might be true that in the long run, as the commenter above suggested, Darrin, Esther and Nicole became patsies, used by their superiors to engage in an unfair disciplinary procedure against Helgen.

The answer to the first question--was the investigation fair and impartial--now seems clear to nearly everyone. It was not, and Agwanda's letter only accentuates that conclusion. Time to turn to the second question.

Michael Balter said...

From Mr. Dwyer, apologies if this posts twice:
To follow up on the response to my previous comment, the anonymous commenter is correct that there are shades of gray. Reporting concerns to a superior generally falls within the realm of qualified privilege and is not defamation. Where the qualified privilege falls apart is if the party reporting their concerns deliberately or recklessly misconstrues or inflates the facts on which their concerns are based. Qualified privilege also does not apply to spreading rumors. This is why consulting with legal counsel is important.

In this case, we don't know the exact contents of any communications reporting concerns from the field and we don't know who was the source of the rumors beings spread. Without that information, we won't know how a potential defamation suit would play out. What is of concern here, and what I tried to focus my comment on, is that there appears to be a misunderstanding at some level within the Smithsonian of how whistleblower protections work, which has the potential to jeopardize Dr. Helgen's career (by spreading rumors), discourage future whistleblowing, and puts potentially innocent parties at risk of facing a defamation lawsuit.

I should also clarify my statement, I did not intend for "accuser" to refer solely to (or even necessarily include all of) Dr. Helgen's colleagues in the field who made the initial reports. For purposes of the legal analysis "accuser" would include anyone in the Smithsonian making statements (informed or otherwise) that Dr. Helgen intentionally engaged in misconduct. Indeed, any superiors using Dr. Helgen's field colleagues as patsies likely have more to fear from a defamation lawsuit, as those actions are indicative of recklessness.

Apologies for any confusion.

Kieran Dwyer, Esq.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks to Kieran Dwyer for an interesting exploration of the legal issues. Perhaps some other attorneys might also share their perspectives.

Meanwhile I want to underscore one point that I think is important for context. The NMNH has been treating the Kris Helgen case as a "personnel" matter, and officials at both the museum and Smithsonian's "Castle" have declined to comment so far citing that as the reason. However, it should be clear that this is no longer a personnel matter, and it probably never was. Rather, my reporting indicates, it has been a very politicized process within the museum. I will be dealing with that in upcoming coverage.

Anonymous said...

Personnel matter? It is very much a matter of whether the NMNH provides adequate administrative support for field work. From the comments, the reporting, it is abundantly clear that the. Kenyan organizations and authorities had only Helgen to interact with, and that NMNH admin levels provided him effectively zero logistical or other support beyond Kearney's signature on a known-by-all-to-be immature documument. The incompetence from what many perceive from the outside to be a field-based expeditionary institution is mind-blowing and reputation shattering. One wonders if anyone in admin knows how to fill out a 3-177 form, or who to call at USFW at major air ports-of-entry. The impression left for us looking in from the margins is that NMNH researchers are expected to do little more than shuffle around the basement sorting the dusty jars. Helgen clearly pushes the envelope on research and publication. This case seems to give credence to the joke that the way to succeed in government employ is to do as little as possible: if you don't do anything, no one can point to any mistakes.

Anonymous said...

In response to the most recent comment:

On Maureen Kearney’s first day at the NMNH, Helgen was already in Kenya. In what way did she, or anyone else at the NMNH, fail to provide adequate support for field work? And where is the evidence to back up your claim that the MTA was “a known-by-all-to-be immature documument [sic]”?

There are many, many curators at the NMNH who mount long field expeditions to remote areas; Helgen is set apart from his colleagues not by his willingness to go into the field, but by his willingness to copy his boss’ signature without her consent and then pass the altered document to a co-PI who is a national of the country from which he hopes to export permits. If you have been left with the impression “that NMNH researchers are expected to do little more than shuffle around the basement sorting the dusty jars” then you clearly have no familiarity with the work of curators other than Helgen.

It would be really helpful if you could clarify the way in which Helgen “pushes the envelope on research and publication” in comparison to other curators in his department and elsewhere within the museum.

Oh, and if you actually believe that “the way to succeed in [NMNH] employ is to do as little as possible,” you would be well advised to speak to someone who is actually familiar with the museum, and ask about the researchers who have been let go due to low productivity.

Anonymous said...

The previous reply, defensive, demands evidence.
The evidence re the MTA is from Agwanda's own statement: "Kris regularly noted that the various MTA lists might need review and further attention from Smithsonian before export of samples to US"
The evidence of Helgen's pushing the envelope on research and publication is his h-index which is a whopping 22 just for peer-reviewed papers published the last 5 years.
The rest of course was in reference to a joke, and should have been taken such even by the very thin skinned.
In what way DID the admin of NMNH provide support for this field work? The notion that some in NMNH admin were hoping for a fail was made in the Verge article. Nowhere in this blog's comments have I seen a shred of evidence to counter that criticism.

Michael Balter said...

The last comment apparently did not post so I am pasting it here, from "Anonymous"--

So because Helgen told people who were with him in Kenya that the MTA would need revision, it’s fine for him to copy the signature of his boss (who was not in Kenya and not privy to those conversations) without her consent?

I specifically asked how “Helgen ‘pushes the envelope on research and publication’ in comparison to other curators in his department and elsewhere within the museum.” In this context, your definition of “whopping” needs revision. I randomly searched for 4 VZ curators in Google Scholar and looked at their h-indices since 2011. Two curators’ 5-year h-indices are marginally lower than Helgen’s, one is marginally above Helgen’s, and one is far above Helgen’s. Helgen seems pretty middle-of-the-road here.

If you are only capable of speaking about the research climate at the NMNH in terms of jokes, and if your jokes are wrong, then you should consider keeping your jokes to yourself.

The administration is legally prohibited from talking to the press about this matter right now; their silence cannot be taken as a sign that the provided no support. And given that Helgen had years to plan this expedition and had multiple co-PIs, he would have been aware of problems well in advance, and various people from other institutions could have helped resolve any issues.

Sure, “The notion that some in NMNH admin were hoping for a fail was made in the Verge article.” But the article provides only that - a notion - and does not provide any evidence either. So it’s a bit soon to judge.

Helgen has a middle-of-the-road 5-year h-index, he is far from the only NMNH curator to conduct extended field research in remote areas, he had a number of years and a number of colleagues to help get everything in order before leaving for Kenya, no evidence has yet been put forward that the NMNH set him up to fail, and the NMNH administration’s choice to follow procedure by not talking to the press can hardly be taken as a sign that there has been some secret crusade against him.

Michael Balter said...

I think it is fair to say, in the legalistic sense, that the jury is still out on whether Helgen is guilty or innocent of the charges against him, or somewhere in between. It literally is, until a decision has been made by NMNH director, Kirk Johnson; and then Helgen can fight a negative decision in various ways.

Two things strike me about some of the comments, however. First, a fixation by some commenters on the signature charge; perhaps they know that is the only one that could possibly be made to stick, given the considerable counter-evidence (from Agwanda and others) about the more serious allegations of attempted illegal export? Second, Helgen's critics, and those who doubt his innocence, have made no comment at all on the bias introduced into the investigation by not interviewing key witnesses such as Agwanda, Hillary Young, and the other members of the expedition who were not NMNH staff (ie, with one possible exception the only people interviewed with the three accusers, as I point out in my article in The Verge.

This omission is rightly seen, I think by most fair observers, as very seriously compromising the investigation and its conclusions. I also know that similar concerns about the appearance of bias are now being discussed within the NMNH and Smithsonian administrations as well, now that they have been publicly revealed. Some there might be tempted to circle the wagons, as bureaucrats so often do, but I am confident that truth will out.

Anonymous said...

This signature keeps coming up. Did he forge the signature? I thought that it had been stated several times over that it was an electronic signature on a document that was not submitted. If the document was not submitted then why does this charge keep coming up? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. What am I missing here?

Michael Balter said...

The word "forgery" has never been used, certainly not in the Proposal to Remove, nor any other place that I am aware of.

Anonymous said...

So it wasn't forged and it wasn't submitted. The signature seems like a non issue.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the signature issue keeps coming up because it has never been fully addressed. We now have a reconstruction, compiled from witness accounts, of every stage of the story regarding the specimens in the liquid nitrogen tanks, the confusion/miscommunication via e-mail, etc.

The signature issue could be dealt with, and potentially put to rest, by a similarly detailed reconstruction (again, based on eyewitness accounts or other evidence) of how it was that Kearney’s signature was copied, and what happened with the document afterwards.

Michael Balter said...

The following was supplied to me by just such a witness, who must remain anonymous. In my article for The Verge and in my first blog post, I refer to these facts which I have been aware of for some time. Obviously this is one perspective but perhaps it will help those who are still concerned about the signature:


"Basically what I know of these documents is that there was a signed MTA via Hillary that was used for the first export of specimens from Kenya to USA. A second MTA will need to be provided if/when the other half of the specimens is shipped from Kenya. With the hope that these specimens may have been exported by Darrin and Esther, Kris was preparing this document so it would be ready for approval at short notice – given that the 4 PIs and approving officials for the MTA were each in different time zones across three continents getting approvals on time was going to be tight. My understanding is that the second MTA that was being prepared was simply a copy of the first draft, which Maureen had signed (but was not used because Hillary and Risky ended up handling paperwork separately) but with far fewer specimens per species. It is also my understanding that Esther had also changed the content of the very same document with Maureen’s signature on it while preparing the second shipment. Finally, the shipment was never sent and Darrin even concedes that this was under Kris’ orders because the paperwork was not to his satisfaction. Kris had no intent of submitting the MTA without Maureen’s prior ratification/approval."

Michael Balter said...

I should add that the explanation provided by the witness above has been available to Gary Graves, Maureen Kearney, and other museum officials since last December.

Michael Balter said...

PS--if my replies to such questions sometimes seem curt, please understand that it's because I am trying to protect confidential sources and yet still get the facts found in my reporting out there.

This witness was a member of the expedition. They were never interviewed by Graves or anyone else. But the basic information they provided was available and known by Graves and others very early in the investigation. Certainly by early December of last year.

Michael Balter said...

Sorry for multiple posting: In case it is not clear, "Risky" is the nickname of Bernard Agwanda.

Anonymous said...

I want to quote a commenter from above about Helgen's publication record-- this comment: "I specifically asked how “Helgen ‘pushes the envelope on research and publication’ in comparison to other curators in his department and elsewhere within the museum.” In this context, your definition of “whopping” needs revision. I randomly searched for 4 VZ curators in Google Scholar and looked at their h-indices since 2011. Two curators’ 5-year h-indices are marginally lower than Helgen’s, one is marginally above Helgen’s, and one is far above Helgen’s. Helgen seems pretty middle-of-the-road here."

Something missing from that assessment is that Helgen seems to be decades younger than any other curator in the NMNH Vertebrate Zoology Division. These metrics are very age-reliant. So Helgen's citations may be "middle of the road" for a scientist in their 60s or 70s-- but Helgen is in his mid-thirties! Look at it another way, if you are a Google Scholar type: Helgen has published 68 papers with at least 10 citations, even though he is only 35 years old, while Graves has published 73 papers with at least 10 citations despite having a career decades longer! Middle of the road? Give me a break. One needs to adjust for age in these assessments. Someone more clever with using something like Google Scholar should tell the rest of us following here in what year Graves arrived at the publication and citation record that Helgen has today. I looked through all the department's curators I could identify and no one comes close to publishing on the range of scientific topics that Helgen does. Not even remotely close. Helgen is clearly prolific and he's also a damned decent person. I'm blown away by the biased investigation here and can't imagine what it is like to work in those departmental hallways.

Michael Balter said...

I now invite commenters and other blog followers to move over to the latest post, a letter in support of Helgen from his former students and other mentees:

http://michael-balter.blogspot.fr/2016/08/kris-helgens-former-students-go-public.html

Anonymous said...

In the Washington Post article, Helgen's attorney claims that no specimens ever left Kenya, yet Agwanda demands the return of exported specimens at the end of his letter. Why the discrepancy?

Michael Balter said...

As the witness quoted above points out, there were two sets of specimens involved, one of Roosevelt expedition materials that were exported and which are not part of the allegations against Helgen; the specimens at issue belonged to Hillary Young and were part of a second shipment that did not end up going out.

Michael Balter said...

I think that readers here eventually have to decide which scenario they think is more likely:

1. After planning the expedition for two years, including getting all the relevant permits as Agwanda outlines above, Helgen goes rogue and decides to throw away his career by attempting to illegally export specimens, copying his instructions to do this to at least seven members of the expedition so he makes extra sure to get caught.

2. His staff, whose disgruntlement is witnesses by many on the expedition, misinterprets what they see and think there is misconduct going on, report it to NMNH and Smithsonian officials, who run with it and conduct a botched investigation that goes on for many months.

To believe number 1, you also have to believe that Agwanda conspired with his American colleagues to export specimens illegally out of his own country. I wish that followers of this blog had the opportunity, as I have, to compare the Proposal to Remove with the detailed rebuttal of the charges outlined by Agwanda above. I am confident that you would come to the same conclusion as I have. However, this is not possible, so I just have to say that I stand by my reporting.

I am happy to try to answer questions, but I would like to challenge those who still doubt Helgen's innocence to come up with some plausible motives for his alleged behavior, because we can hash over the details ad infinitum.

Anonymous said...

Some one above asked about Kris Helgen's publication record in relation to that of Gary Graves. The R package "scholar" has some nice functionalities for downloaded google scholar data and this allowed me to perform a quick analysis looking at yearly changes in H-index. Kris Helgen currently has an H-Index of 24 (24 papers cited 24 or more times), which he has acheived with a publication record that began in 1999 and a citation record that began in 2001 (i.e. 15 years of citations). Gary Graves has an H-index of 33, which he has achieved since citations began accumulating in 1977 (i.e. 39 years of citations). Gary Graves hit an H-index equal to Kris Helgen's current index of 24 in 2011. Thus, it took him 34 years to achieve comparable impact, as measured by H-index, as Helgen did in 15. Whether or not the H-index is an objective measure of impact or quality of science I will leave to readers to decide. This is just an objective analysis of google's citation data.

Anonymous said...

It is telling that (defensive) Anonymous deploys a straw-man informal logical fallacy with "specifically asked how “Helgen ‘pushes the envelope on research and publication’ in comparison to other curators in his department", when the original comment did not reference other curators in his department as comparison. Indeed I see nothing in the original suggestion that he is pushing the envelope which would suggest others at NMNH are not as well. It seems to have not been the point, notwithstanding the visceral response. One can only imagine the amount of similar gaslighting Helgen is and has been subjected to over the last 9 months.

Also interesting that (same) Anonymous reveals that Kearney arrived after Helgen was in the field. Does this not mean that whatever document her signature _was_ on could not have been an original signature, and had to itself have been copied on to whatever legitimate MTA document preceeded the one that is in question?

Anonymous said...

This case is more serious than has been captured here. The NMK official has failed to provide material facts and has to a large extend provide false information regarding export of genetic materials from Kenya in an attempt to cover Dr. Hellen. The Kenyan law is very clear on export of genetic samples by locals and foreigners. It is only KWS that issues export permits for genetic material. In this case, this did not happen and an offense was committed by Dr. Elgen. The penalty in Kenya for that offence is 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of ten million kenya shillings. Section 99 of the wildlife conservation and management act 2013 is very clear on this process and this act is available online for anyone who cares to read. Other than the wild dog sample, there is another set of over 500 samples of small mammals from Mt. Kenya that were illegally exported to Smithsonian Institute by Dr. Hellen and Dr. Hillary without an export permit from KWS. The following laws have been violated, CBD, Nagoya Protocol, Wildlife conservation and management act of kenya 2013, and Environmental Conservation and Management Act of Kenya 1999.

Michael Balter said...

I'm going to have to ask the last poster to quickly supply some hard evidence for these very serious charges or I will have to delete this post. For me to leave up such serious allegations--for which I have seen no evidence in my reporting--could expose me to a defamation suit by the people accused. At the very least, I would think if this poster had such serious information he or she would be able to spell the names of the people being accused correctly.

Anonymous said...

The accusations made above are among those reviewed by the Smithsonian's Office of the Inspector General last year. This case was closed in December 2015.

Michael Balter said...

The last post did not take so I am reproducing it below. These are very serious charges and I will leave it to Bernard Agwanda and other members of the Roosevelt team to respond. The one thing I do know is that there were tensions within the KWS and between KWS and NMK that are behind this, so I would encourage readers not to rely on any particular account as authoritative, including this one.


This letter is not truthful and Mr. Agwanda is far from telling the truth on this Mt. Kenya expedition.

The procedure is that foreign researchers wishing to work in Kenya apply for a research permit from NACOSTI to undertake any form of research. If they are researching on wildlife, then they are required to get research clearance from kenya wildlife service. If KWS establishes that the research will involve collection of biological/genetic samples, then KWS issues a consent letter or prior informed consent to the researcher to enable the researcher apply for an access permit to genetic resources from the national environment management authority. As such, NEMA only issues access permits. The researcher then undertakes field work and contacts KWS for verification of all the biological/genetic samples collected. If the samples are to be processed outside kenya, the researcher or institution signs a material transfer agreement with KWS as the competent wildlife resource provider in kenya. Now with the above documentation, the researcher applies for an export permit from KWS to move the biological materials out of kenya. This is the procedure and the same is documented under the wildlife conservation and management act 2013.

Mr. Agwanda is misreading by writing that NEMA issues export permits in kenya. Again he is wrong by reporting here that NMK issues material transfer agreement in kenya. Mr. Agwanda is actually an accomplish in a serious criminal case involving illegal export of biological/genetic materials collected from mt. kenya to Smithsonian institute. I am of the opinion that Mr. Agwanda letter should not be relied on. He is a junior NMK employees being used by Dr. Helgen for an illegal reason.

The correct position is that Dr. Helgen and team illegally exported to Smithsonian institute over 500 biological/genetic samples without an export permit from KWS as required by Kenyan law, CBD and Nagoya protocol. Actually, the revelation of additional wild dog samples being exported to either Smithsonian or California without an export permit from KWS is a serious additional charge.

Kenyan biological/genetic material/samples from Mt. Kenya are being held at Smithsonian Institute in violation of CBD, Nagoya protocol and relevant kenya laws. This is the correct and current position.

Let the truth be told to set all of us free. God Bless Kenya, God bless America.

Michael Balter said...

Just one more comment here, although I doubt it will be the last one. Although I have some concerns about defamation, I also do not want to act as a censor. There are people within the NMNH and Smithsonian who know the background to this, and I call on them to come forward--that means finding their courage in some cases--and set us all straight. Let's get this out in the open, whatever it is.

Michael Balter said...

Anonymous:

The provisions are clear that any researcher requires a export permit from the chief licensing officer at KWS to move biological/genetic materials out of Kenya. That is the law. Can Dr. Helgen provide a copy of his export permit from KWS for the samples that he collected from Mt. Kenya and that he is holding at Smithsonian.

If he does not have that export permit, then he has a serious case to answer.

Michael Balter said...

I'm going to quote something out of my original article in The Verge that I think is relevant to what is going on here:

Doing research in places like Kenya can be difficult for foreign scientists. A number of researchers told The Verge that the NMNH and Smithsonian have sometimes left young scientists in the lurch and looked the other way when problems come up. Kevin Rowe, senior curator of mammals at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, says that despite the importance of specimen collection to documenting changes in biodiversity over time, the challenges of doing it mean that "fewer and fewer researchers are willing to travel the treacherous path."

I think it's time now for museum officials to step up and address the accusations from what appear to be dissenting voices within the Kenya Wildlife Service, which the SI's Office of the Inspector General dealt with in its investigation of the charges against Helgen. It is their job, not mine, to defend him and his colleagues from these accusations. Let's see some courage from them, something they have not displayed up to now in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

The last post have no point unless he explain relevance of NACOSTI, NEMA, what does that law say? Is NMK an NGO with no legal mandate on biodiversity in Kenya?
Did the KWS law of 2013 repeal others preexisting laws by other state agencies? The blogger is likely to confuse readers by overemphasizing apparently his one institutional law misinterpreted othets and introducing new cases. He should identify him or herself and sign the post. Otherwise his post should be removed.

Anonymous said...

May I ask, is the blogger saying KWS is one stopshop for permitting biodiversoty research in Kenya? Hence Agwanda misled his team to apply KFS, NACOSTI
Why waste time applying for many permits scattered in other institutions, when you can do that in one agency! Agwanda and Kris must have been crazy. This blogger above should file a signed copy.

Anonymous said...

May I ask, is the blogger saying KWS is one stopshop for permitting biodiversoty research in Kenya? Hence Agwanda misled his team to apply KFS, NACOSTI
Why waste time applying for many permits scattered in other institutions, when you can do that in one agency! Agwanda and Kris must have been crazy. This blogger above should file a signed copy.
If not then this could be one of hostile KWS staff Kris complained of.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Balter should be able to check the claims of the poster explaining that only KWS can issue export permits. If that is true and as Agwanda states, they only had an MTA from the National Museum of Kenya, then all of the co-leaders may have reasons to lie. Mr. Balter, have you asked anyone from KWS about the rules governing the export of specimens and whether Helgen had the right permits? It seems like they should be able to clear this up.

Michael Balter said...

I did contact the KWS but they were unhelpful despite several requests.

As the Office of Inspector General found, the KWS had only recently taken on the export permit responsibility and there was clearly confusion and debate within the service about what the proper procedures were. All of my reporting points to the conclusion that Helgen and his co-leaders were doing everything they could to follow proper procedures, even as they changed right in front of their eyes in some cases. There is no evidence, nor reason to believe, that anyone on the team was trying to do anything illegal or improper. In my story for The Verge and on this blog, I describe the misunderstandings and suspicions that led to these allegations. I am not going to engage in further discussion about this, because those who want to do that clearly have axes to grind.

Anonymous said...

http://www.kws.go.ke/content/licensing

Anonymous said...

According to the link provided by the above anonymous poster, the following things are required to get an export permit from the KWS:

"Export/ Re- Export Permit
The following guidelines will apply to requests to export specimen for the stated purposes:

Scientific Specimen
Applicants who wish to export scientific specimens will be required to attach the following documents to their application forms:

Research permit from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology
Research/ project proposal
Letter of support from KWS Research Division
Material transfer agreement (MTA) with Government of Kenya or an affiliate Kenyan institution
Preliminary study findings (for on-going research)
KWS Application form (in addition to NCST Application form)
Curriculum vitae
Letters of support/Affiliation + Institutional profile
Collaborative agreements (if collaborative research)
NCST ( National council of science and Technology ) Clearance for research
NEMA ( National Environmental Management Act ) Access Permit
KWS Prior Consent (PIC)"

So, all of things Agwanda lists in his letter of support are required, but not sufficient to export specimens. They didn't have a permit or Agwanda would have said they did.

It doesn't matter if the law was recently changed about who issues permits, or if KWS couldn't get it's act together. A government agency being unable to function efficiently does not invalidate a law. If they didn't have export permits from KWS, they were breaking the law. Further as experienced field researchers, they would have known that they needed the proper permits and that they didn't have them.

Anonymous said...

The whole line of comments making unfounded allegations regarding a KWS permit are a red herring and are clearly designed to damage Dr. Helgen rather than elicit the truth.

According to the article and subsequent reporting, the proposal to remove does not accuse Dr. Helgen of failing get a KWS report. The comments regarding the KWS permit appear to be designed to distract from the fact that evidence indicates that NMNH's actual allegations against Dr. Helgen are baseless and founded on personal jealously.

It is fundamentally unfair to malign Dr. Helgen and the entire field team (and far more people than Dr. Helgen would be at fault) with accusations of misconduct without any evidence whatsoever in a forum where the maligned cannot respond.


Furthermore, these accusations rely on inferences, rather than actual facts, and demand proof of innocence without any credible evidence of guilt. Given the clear bias, nothing in these comments should be given any credence.

-Kieran Dwyer, Esq.

Anonymous said...

What, exactly, is the evidence that the NMNH's allegations are founded on personal jealously? From the reporting, it seemed to be an inference based on office gossip.

The accusation that the NMNH investigation was flawed could be construed as evidence (although that is really an inference based on the reporter's experience). But the accusation of personal jealously is entirely inference.

The proposal to remove most certainly does accuse Helgen and Young of not having the proper permits. Balter reported that charge no. 2 of the proposal to remove accuses Helgen and Young of attempting to export wild dog specimens without the proper permits. It's not a KWS report, it is permission to export scientific specimens, typically referred to as a permit. Only the KWS can issue them for Kenya.

I think this whole thing turns on whether Helgen had the proper permits. If he did, then he is being sorely mistreated by the Smithsonian.

However, if he did, then none of this should have gotten this far. You can't smuggle wild dog specimens if you have the proper permits. Nor can you be hiding it from KWS if they have given you permission in the form of permits. Showing Young's permits should have cleared this right up.

Balter's comment above suggests that OIC cleared Helgen because KWS was in disarray, not because Helgen produced permits proving that he had permission to export the specimens.

Whether or not he had the proper permits is a verifiable fact. Yet nowhere does it say that he had them. Balter contends they were acting in good faith, not that they had permits.

Anonymous said...

There are inferences based on the facts and inferences in spite of the facts. Comments suggesting that Dr. Helgen exported samples without a permit are inferences in spite of the facts. To the contrary, Mr. Balter's post states that "In the end, the samples were not exported because of confusion about the permits with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) (the OIG report concluded that such confusion was behind most of the problems that came up later.)" Dr. Helgen is not accused of exporting the samples without a permit and to suggest he was smuggling is disingenuous, inflammatory, and unfounded.

By comparison, in the article, Mr. Balter stated "Other scientists, who did speak, suggested that an atmosphere of rivalries, jealousies, and conflicts that predated the expedition may have given rise to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what went on in Kenya," which is an inference based on the facts.

-Kieran Dwyer, Esq.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting comments.

Anonymous said...

So... did samples of mammals from Mt. Kenya get exported without a KWS permit?

Anonymous said...

It might be good if some readers and commenters showed some tolerance for posts apparently coming from Africa. Attacking their spelling and challenging posts that were in fact linked to regulation is a little "first world"-y.

Michael Balter said...

I'm going to respond to the issue of spelling since I am the one who made that remark.

It might also be racist to assume that Africans do not know how to spell as well as Westerners. My point was that anyone really familiar with the facts of the case, whether within or without KWS, would know how to spell the names of the main individuals, including Hillary Young and Kris Helgen. A failure to spell their names correctly could easily be an indication that the individual did not know what they were talking about, or that they were careless with the facts of the case.

Anonymous said...

So... did samples of mammals from Mt. Kenya get exported without a KWS permit? It sounds like that happened.

Anonymous said...

The issue is not whether Helgen is a productive scientist -- he's already proven his worth and work many times over already while at the NMNH. His character references pertaining to his ethics and values are also strong (as evidenced by the support of some of colleagues and former students and postdocs). However, none of these things can PROVE whether or not he TRIED to smuggle tissue samples of an endangered species out of Kenya. Given Agwanda's explanation of what happened from HIS perspective and the lack of impartiality from NMNH investigators (especially Graves), it appears that Helgen is innocent and it seems like there is a conspiracy to have Helgen ousted from the NMNH based on what appears to be a miscommunication and misunderstanding among colleagues.

Anonymous said...

Helgen is not innocent until he provide a copy of biological material export permit for all the specimen he smuggled to Smithsonian Institute from Mt. Kenya Forest.

Actually, the conspiracy at Smithsonian Institute is that of high level cover up to ensure that Kenyans do not provide incriminating evidence on Helgen and the expedition team. The available evidence will name other senior staff at Smithsonian involved in this serious cover up.

One fundamental question is why Helgen signed a second material transfer agreement with the national museums of kenya, when he already new that Smithsonian Institute had signed an earlier MTA with KWS and NMK. Was this second MTA a deliberate plot enable smuggling of biological materials out of Kenya without an export permit?

Lastly, if both Helgen and Hillary have NEMA access permits to sample wild dogs in Kenya, let these documents be provided, in addition to an export permit as required by Kenyan laws.

If NEMA access permit and an Export permits for biological material taken to California or Smithsonian are not available, then serious crimes were committed by Helgen and team.

Michael Balter said...

I think the first thing that has to happen is for those accusing Helgen and his team (including Kenyan mammalogist Bernard Agwanda) to explain to all of us why they supposedly "smuggled" all these specimens out of Kenya. And by specimens we are talking about blood and hair samples, etc, not whole animals or anything irreplaceable that would be missed if they left Kenya. Come up with a theory for why Helgen would have risked his career to get these specimens out, and then we might take such claims more seriously.

Anonymous said...

@Balter: Whole specimen of small mammals were actually smuggled out of kenya by the team. However, whole specimen or blood and hair samples is not the issue here. All these are classified as biological or genetic specimen that are the property of the Kenya government and their use including for research is controlled and regulated by Kenyan laws, Nagoya protocol and CBD. In reality, it is only Helgen who can explain why he undertook such a high risk on his career by breaking clear Kenyan and international laws. Mr. Agwanda in his letter posted here confirms that indeed biological specimen were moved to Smithsonian by Helgen and team, on the strength of an MTA from national museums of kenya that Agwanda irregularly signed. An MTA is not an export permit but a document that proves a collaboration exists. If anyone inspects Helgen's research permit from NACOSTI, condition No. 4 on that permit clearly states that collection of biological specimen is subject to further permission from the relevant government ministries. The bottom line here is why did Helgen and team deliberately refuse to follow the normal procedure of biological specimen movement from Kenya to Smithsonian?

Michael Balter said...

I've already pointed out repeatedly in my reporting that there are disputes and rivalries both within the Kenya Wildlife Service and between the KWS, the National Museums of Kenya, and other agencies that have played a major role in what happened. Those disputes have little to do with Helgen, Agwanda and their team; but the above commenter is clearly a party to them. The explains the multiple comments from this and perhaps one or two other individuals at the most.

Michael Balter said...

Are these persistent anonymous comments possibly coming from a disgruntled and corrupt staff member at the Kenya Wildlife Service? If so, I would invite him to come forward before someone else reveals his identity.

Dr Purva Pius said...
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Mst Shahida said...
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