Credit: Photo courtesy of Norman Lim
But there is one researcher who is not being allowed to discuss it: Kris Helgen, one of the two corresponding authors. The reason is that Helgen has been on administrative leave from the NMNH since late May, and is under investigation for alleged research misconduct while on an expedition he was leading in Kenya. Yesterday, in an article in The Verge, I reported on a month-long investigation of the charges, which include attempting to export samples of an endangered species out of Kenya without proper permits. In that article, I concluded that the allegations were almost certainly false, and were more likely the result of--at the very least--misunderstandings and misinterpretations on the part of members of Helgen's staff, who were his chief accusers. (I was happy to see that the Washington Post picked up the story, in an article by its star science reporter, Joel Achenbach.)
Helgen is not supposed to talk to the press while the disciplinary proceedings continue. I asked Sarah Goforth, the assistant director for communications at the NMNH, whether they would make an exception since Helgen is one of two corresponding authors on the paper and his Smithsonian email is listed there (which he is not allowed to use while on administrative leave.) It took Goforth some time to get me an answer on that, but it finally came earlier today. No exception: "Dr. Helgen is unavailable for comment."
But co-author William Murphy described Helgen's role on the paper to me, and agreed to let me quote him, which I will do in full:
"Kris is a co-leader of the colugo project, which began more than seven years ago. He led and facilitated all of the museum tissue sampling at the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity in Singapore. Without this genetic and morphological sampling we could not have accomplished the museomics component of our study (Figs 3 and 4 in our paper), and we would not have obtained the evidence that colugos have been vastly underestimated in terms of their species and population genetic diversity. He aided in analyzing and interpreting the colugo dataset and played central roles in all decisions made as part of this project. The project simply would not have been accomplished without him."
In other words, Helgen may be down, but, scientifically at least, he's not out.
I am grateful to my terrific editors at The Verge, science editor Elizabeth Lopatto and Nilay Patel, the Editor-in-Chief, for letting me have nearly 4000 words to tell the story of Helgen's case as best I could--nearly double the original assigned length. Yet believe it or not, there are more things to say about it, and I want to lay them out here. While my story in The Verge may seem to some to have an advocacy tone, in fact, as I explain a bit more below, I did not start out thinking he was innocent of the charges against him. At first I thought I had a disturbing story about scientific misconduct. But as I looked into it, strong evidence emerged that pointed in a different direction, towards Helgen's likely innocence. If the story tilts that way, it's because of what my reporting uncovered, and not any inherent bias on my part. I have never met Kris Helgen; but I admit that I hope to one day.
Was the investigation of the charges fair and impartial? Clearly not.
I will refer readers to the original article for a list of the allegations and the responses to them that have been made by Helgen's supporters. The key thing I want to emphasize here is the shoddiness of the investigation conducted by Helgen's department chair, ornithologist Gary Graves. This is summarized in an 8-page document called a Proposal to Remove. I will simply say that I am intimately familiar with its contents. I have been a journalist for 38 years, and I have done a lot of investigative work during that time. I don't know how experienced Graves is in doing investigations--a task perhaps more appropriately left to professional investigators from the Smithsonian's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which earlier cleared Helgen--but the allegations outlined in the Proposal to Remove are supported by incomplete and clearly biased evidence.
There are three charges. Let me take the second two first. Charge no. 2 specifies that Helgen attempted to export samples of the endangered wild dog to the United States from Kenya. This is a serious charge because it involves U.S. law, including possibly, according to the document, the Endangered Species Act (although nobody alleges that actual animals were being exported or that they were harmed) and the Lacey Act, which concerns the import or export of materials that violate foreign laws. As I point out in the story, these wild dog samples belonged not to Helgen but to Hillary Young, his former postdoc and now an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Graves contends that neither Helgen nor Young had the proper permits to export these samples. 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.) However, in on the record comments to me cited in my story, Hillary Young explained what had happened and why Helgen was trying to help her export these samples.
Did Gary Graves at any time during his investigation contact Young for clarification of events, and to seek possible exculpatory evidence for Kris Helgen, as would be expected of a fair investigator? He did not, according to her statements to me, and nothing in the detailed charge sheet indicates anything to the contrary. Nor does the charge sheet make any reference to additional important documentation about Young's wild dog samples that Graves and museum officials had available before he set down his conclusions.
In charge no. 3, Graves accuses Helgen of instructing his staff to hide samples from a KWS inspector. As I point out in the story, this was most likely due to a misunderstanding during email communication between Helgen and his staff while Helgen was in Australia. Graves refers to these emails in the Proposal to Remove, emails which I myself have seen (they were copied to about 7 members of the expedition team, not very smart if Helgen was trying to do something improper.) But Graves's reference to these emails, in this reporter's opinion, uses the worst kind of cherrypicking imaginable to arrive at what can only be considered a preconceived conclusion. Moreover, Graves never contacted Kenyan mammalogist Bernard Agwanda or other expedition members who knew a lot about what was going on in Kenya during these events and who, again, could have provided exculpatory evidence for Helgen.
As I point out in the story, the chief accusers behind charges 2 and 3 were three of Helgen's staff members at the museum, Darrin Lunde, Esther Langan, and Nicole Edmison. Graves did not talk to anyone, as far as I can determine, outside of museum staff, with one possible exception. I point out in the story that Lunde and Langan were openly expressing their unhappiness with Helgen over various museum and expedition issues from the very beginning of the expedition, and to everyone within earshot (I spoke to a number of expedition members who were direct witnesses to this.)
So, the evidence suggests that Graves was relying almost entirely on witnesses with a demonstrated animosity towards Helgen; and, as I point out in the story, he did not interview nor attempt to contact any of the expedition co-leaders or other members of the expedition who might have presented different facts or viewpoints.
The case of the copied signature.
In my story, I say that the evidence for charges 2 and 3 were very flimsy. That leaves charge no. 1, the allegation that Helgen copied the signature of NMNH associate director for science Maureen Kearney onto an export document without her knowledge and permission, as potentially the most "serious" allegation. I make clear in the story that this is the perception of some researchers. However, this charge, according to Helgen supporters knowledgeable of what actually happened, is just as flimsy as the others. Kearney had signed a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) for some of the specimens in advance, but during the scramble at the end of the expedition to prepare samples for export a number of changes had to be made on it, and other versions prepared; other members of Helgen's staff, including at least one of the accusers, were reportedly among those who made changes. In the end the document with Kearney's copied signature was not used to export samples (apparently because Helgen was not satisfied that the paperwork passed muster), even though Helgen's supporters insist that he had intended to get Kearney's approval if it was used.
In talking to NMNH researchers sympathetic to Helgen, and to outside researchers such as Victoria Museum mammal curator Kevin Rowe, who is quoted in my story, I was told that such complex situations are common. My conclusion is that the signature charge represents a tempest in a teapot, and is again probably linked to a preconceived and biased case against Helgen. As Rowe and others pointed out to me, if NMNH and Smithsonian officials had given more support to Helgen and the expedition in dealing with the KWS and other Kenyan authorities, all of this might have been avoided. (Some NMNH sources have suggested to me that some museum officials were half-hoping the expedition would fail, as a comeuppance for Helgen's audacity in mounting it and his rapid rise at the museum; I am simply reporting here what they have said, but I hope that is not true.)
But did Graves talk to Bernard Agwanda, who had intimate knowledge of how all this worked, or to Hillary Young, about the circumstances under which samples were prepared for export and the attempts to cover those exports with proper permitting? Again, no. Did he talk to KWS authorities about what happened? I don't know, but according to sources familiar with the Proposal to Remove, it does not mention any such interviews or evidence from that agency.
What is the prosecution's Theory of the Case?
When lawyers present a case at trial, they usually give a succinct summary of what it is all about, called a Theory of the Case. It normally includes a statement about the motivation of the accused, because intent is a major factor in determining guilt or innocence. What motivation for illegally and improperly exporting samples from Kenya does Graves provide in his charge sheet? None whatsoever. Did Helgen want to export these samples because a new species of mammal had been discovered that would boost his stellar scientific career even higher and allow him to hold a press conference or publish a hot paper in a major journal? Was Helgen risking his entire career to help his former postdoc Hillary Young get wild dog samples out of the country that were legally collected and which she insists she already had permission to export? Did Helgen, in a moment of weakness, frustration, or distraction, flaunt the very rules that he had delayed the expedition a full year to insure were followed?
All of these motivations are possible, but they are not plausible, and I trust that most readers will forgive my ironic tone. Yet Graves presents no idea, no theory, no motivation on Helgen's part that would explain all this--at least none that he was willing to express in his 8-page, single-spaced document. But he and others have been expressing themselves in other ways, which I will now turn to.
Is "confidentiality" designed to protect the accused employee or the institution?
During the preparation of my story for The Verge, I received a number of sanctimonious statements from NMNH and Smithsonian officials about the confidentiality of the disciplinary process and how that was designed to protect the accused employee. A similar statement was provided to the Washington Post when it asked for comment, and to me by Gary Graves as cited in the story. Let's cut to the chase on this one. Are the NMNH and the Smithsonian really concerned about Helgen's privacy rights, or is secrecy a good way to do whatever they want behind closed doors?
I did not find out about this case from Kris Helgen. Before I started working on this story, I had no idea who he was, since mammals are not part of my normal science writing beat. I found out from someone I had come into contact with who is not at the museum, who had heard rumors from people inside the museum--including curators who are part of the middle echelon of the hierarchy there.
How were such rumors spreading if the sanctity of the confidential process was being observed? The rumors were inaccurate, but they still had to come from somewhere--almost certainly, of course, from people who did know at least something. I pointed out in the story that I had clear evidence that Gary Graves was the origin of at least some of the stories, and I stand by my reporting on that.
But I also found that the researchers who knew, or thought they knew, the most about the case were at the American Museum of Natural History, where Lunde and Edmison had previously worked. One AMNH researcher told me emphatically, off the record, that they thought Helgen was almost for sure guilty. Where did this person get their information? What made them so sure? I will leave it to readers to consider the possibilities, and the terrible damage that rumors can do to someone's reputation when they have no way to defend themselves.
(btw, I am not trying to imply that any of these colleagues of Helgen's deliberately tried to frame him, so they should not start running to call their lawyers. I am simply saying that the established facts show there was clear bias in the process.)
What's next for Helgen?
Sources in the museum tell me that many top administrators are away right now, either on vacation or doing other things. But of course they knew this story was coming for some time. I don't know what will happen next, or what Helgen's ultimate fate will be; he has a team of attorneys who seem to be fighting hard for him. But as a reporter, I am determined that whatever is done will be done under full public scrutiny. Secrecy has already played its insidious, corrupting role.
Update: KENYAN CO-LEADER OF ROOSEVELT EXPEDITION SLAMS SMITHSONIAN NMNH'S CHARGES AGAINST KRIS HELGEN
Well, I know for a fact that there are at least three of us commentating anonymously here but – and I hate to say it, because I know you’re a man that doesn’t believe in coincidences, Michael – we’re not the three accusers. Or at least, I’m not one.
But yes, I know both Darrin Lunde and Kris Helgen very well and - unlike you - I've known both them for many years and worked with them both. I like both of them personally, I know their work, and I have great respect for it. I have no axe to grind.
I don't have any facts about what happened in Africa or at the Smithsonian - hey, something that you and I have in common! – but I’m afraid your whole story just doesn’t add up. Yes, I know the whole mix of petty jealousies, resentment of the young, staff muttering about protocols, etc sounds convincing, in a sort of Peyton Place way, but this is a museum. If that sort of thing led to dismissals, none of us would have a job.
A more convincing explanation – and again, please note; I don’t know any specifics of the case other than what you’ve written – is that with the current sensitivities in museums about the implementation of the access and benefit sharing arrangements of the Nagoya Protocols, this is a really, really bad time for someone to start asking questions about irregularities in a material transfer agreement. And if there isn't a good answer for those questions, someone could lose their job.
But as I said, what do I know? My sole concern in commenting was based on your decision to name names. Bad enough that Kris is the subject of rumors, now you've expanded that rumor mill to encompass three relatively junior staff who also have no right of reply, and don't have the high profile advocates that he has. Your argument that you posted links to their webpages "for readers to know exactly who they are and what they do" is laughable; you've already told us who they are in the article. Darrin is a veteran of museums, but the Langan and Edmison are, I guess, still in their twenties, just at the start of their careers and now wondering if they’re actually going to have a career. And pointing that out isn’t sanctimonious. It’s a matter of humanity.
As I point out in this blog post, I changed my mind once about this case. I started off thinking Kris Helgen was guilty because I thought I had a good source on what had happened. Then I checked it out as thoroughly as possible, my job as a reporter, and came to the opposite conclusion. So that argues against any bias on my part--and, I want to make clear, if anyone comes forward with evidence that points to Kris Helgen's guilt I will publish that in about two seconds. Watching and waiting.
It is the default position in journalism that alleged sexual assault victims are granted anonymity unless they want to be known. In this story the "research assistant" went sort of half-way in identifying herself.
This is a very different situation than with people who are accusing someone of scientific misconduct. And, I want to say again, two of the accusers first made their allegations publicly, in front of numerous witnesses, long before they became part of an internal investigation at NMNH/Smithsonian. Therefore they should not expect anonymity in a story about the case since they have already waived it.
"Anonymity is one thing, but since they were involved in the 'internal case' and you mention everyone by names every chance you get in the Verge article and here. There IS NO need to hyperlink the NMNH people directly accused. Young, the AMNH folks, nor the Australian have hyperlinks. The way you have written so, is similar to defamation.
If your intent is to 'highlight' what they do, then state that in your BLOG text not in the COMMENT section. "
A very simple response, the three people referred to are the accusers, and so there is particular interest in knowing who is raising accusations--whether they are right or wrong--that could destroy a researcher's career. Very basic.
On the last comment, the debate here is about whether Helgen is being treated unfairly or not. His supporters, who are now legion (many dozens of well known researchers have written to NMNH and Smithsonian officials in his support) believe that he is, and many think it likely that he is being railroaded. My job as a journalist is to report everything I find out and try to figure out what is going on. In this situation, the identity of the accusers is relevant. Journalists are not bound by the rules of the institutions they are investigating, if that were the case investigative journalism would not be possible. In my reporting, I have come across witnesses who question the motivations of the accusers, and who have provided testimony on that subject. To insist that the staff members must remain anonymous is basically to say that Helgen does not have the right to confront his accusers, despite the fact that his job is on the line. To summarize, in this situation, the identity of the accusers and their motivations are completely relevant, and the evidence about their feelings concerning Helgen dates to before any allegations of wrongdoing were made.
But it's really a moot point now, isn't it? I am happy to let people on this blog criticize me for revealing their names, but those names are now out there. The story in The Verge has attracted more than 25,000 readers and this blog post is up to about 2500 page views. I think it's time to move on to the question of whether or not Helgen deserves to be fired.
Another thing that deserves attention is how you talk about the export of materials in your audio interview (one of the lawyers also does a terrible job in the WaPo when he said: "We’re not talking about animals, we’re talking about blood samples and test tubes, not actual animals.”). You might not know this, but putting tubes inside pockets is one of the most common ways to illegally export samples (not an accusation, just a statement). By most country regulations, tissue and blood samples have to go through the same process as entire specimens. If not, that's considered biopiracy.
I hope you keep investigating and don't get too enthusiastic about the glitter and sparkles that come out of Helgen's persona. There's no denying that he is a well-respected scientist, has an impressive publication record and is admired by many. However, people make mistakes and one thing does not invalidate the other. If he is guilty of those accusations, there should be consequences. I wasn't there, you weren't there, most of his supporters weren't there, and at this point, your article is causing more damage than good.
I am continuing to investigate, and as I said earlier, if anyone produces evidence of Helgen's guilt I will report that. Still waiting. All I see here is attempts by friends and sympathizers of the accusers to discredit my reporting. At least one of the accusers is threatening NMNH officials with going to the press to tell their side of the story. They still don't want to tell it to me, but I hope they tell it to someone publicly. I am eager to hear it.
1. The charge that my reporting is "biased" reflects a misunderstanding of modern journalism. Is the news media "biased" if it points out that Donald Trump is lying about certain things? He thinks so, but actually journalists who do report lies that he has told are just doing their job. There has been a lot of commentary about the way that journalism is changing in this regard and the way that this election campaign in particular has made journalists more keenly aware of their roles as truth-seekers and truth-tellers.
2. If my reporting seems "biased" to some it's because I uncovered certain facts about the Kris Helgen case that tilt in one direction rather than another. As I have pointed out repeatedly, they indicate clearly (this is my conclusion from that reporting) that the investigation was itself unfair and biased. If I call an investigation biased, of course some will say that I am the biased one.
3. It's not true that I am only telling one side of the story. Although the accusers do not want to talk, the accusations by Gary Graves, and the evidence that is supposed to support them, is outlined clearly in an 8-page document which I obviously am intimately familiar with. That is, I have had the opportunity of seeing what the evidence is against Helgen, and then independently investigating how sound it is. The conclusions of that investigation are reported in the article in The Verge and on this blog.
4. Helgen is not accused of playing fast and loose with Kenyan export regulations, cutting corners, being sloppy or careless. He is accused, in the 8-page document, of deliberately and consciously trying to violate Kenyan and U.S. laws. That is, he is accused of criminal acts, with full intent. This is how Graves is justifying his recommendation that Helgen be fired. Perhaps the three accusers named in my story are being temporarily inconvenienced or embarrassed, but nobody is threatening their jobs and their careers.
We do have lots of facts. We have the fact that Gary Graves did not interview key witnesses or did he consider key evidence he had available.
According to the reporter, it was an anti-Helgen person that contacted him to launch this whole thing. You seem to give short shrift to the damaging impact of the accusers loose lips. Whether they were talking to friends is irrelevant or ameliorate the point about spreading rumors. Most rumors start among friends.
The reporter has the document, key witnesses were not interviewed by the Graves-led team. Is that true or not? This seems like binary key point to me. Either: key witnesses were interviewed and the reporter is lying/mistaken. OR 2: key witnesses were not interviewed and the investigation was flawed. Secondary to that is why there was second investigation after the OIG. How is this not double jeopardy?
All this discussion about the accusers feelings and the impact on their career may be the most important things to some people, e.g., the accusers and their friends, but to me it seems distracting from the much bigger issues of institutional malfeasance. if the accusers know they did the right thing then they should just wait for vindication. If they helped blow the whistle on a criminal then they will be seen as heroes.
Where they being sloppy by allowing a second investigation to go through? Or is it that they do not trust the OIG?
The issue is with the frankly horrendous Graves investigation. At best, it's incompetent and at worst it is biased to the point of being an abuse of power. I know little, beyond rumors, of the history between Graves and Helgen, and so cannot comment either way there. The point Balter makes repeatedly though, and with which I strongly agree, is that a career is on the line because of an incompetent investigation by someone who clearly was not qualified to conduct it. The fact that NMNH was willing to allow this to happen is also deeply troubling. Someone further up the foodchain at the museum needs to stand up and call bullshit on this before it goes to far. No scientist, and certainly not a museum curator who rotated into this position fairly recently, receives training in conflict management and criminal investigation. NMNH might as well have picked a random person off the street to conduct the investigation (although in DC, the probability of picking someone actually more qualified that Graves would likely be higher). Balter's reporting reveals an inadequate investigation that did not question key individuals that could have exonerate Helgen, despite those names being available. Whether intentional or not on Grave's part, the final product is biased and by extension, incompetent. That's the story. That's what the focus of this debate should be on. Let's talk about that, huh?
THIS IS NOT THE SMITHSONIAN I LOVE AND RESPECT
I was on the expedition. I know Kris Helgen. And I know the NMNH persons named in this reporting. I have opted to report this comment anonymously for the very reason that there was need for this article: I am scared to publicly share my opinions for fear of retribution from NMNH leadership.
Reflect on that. I am a young scientist that has always respected, valued, and appreciated the Smithsonian and NMNH - but I am scared to share my personal observations and facts of this case because the institution I revere is conducting witch hunts against it own junior scientists.
This is NOT the atmosphere that we want for one of our nation's leading science institutions. I appreciate the other viewpoints shared in this commentary - but Balter's reporting is the only voice for me and the numerous colleagues in my position.
I saw the same things the Balter reports. I can't share those in this process because I fear the same retribution from Smithsonian that Kris has received. Smithsonian investigators, as is accurately reported, asked only for the opinions of the few people that had long-standing grudges against Kris (the motivations for these grudges matches my impressions with perfect accuracy). I and my colleagues can't publicly speak about the case for fear of being fired. None of the people that are prosecuting Kris will speak publicly about this case. How else are these viewpoints to be brought to light except through the pathway of investigative reporting?
The two questions most germane to this discussion that I am not seeing adequately treated are:
1) why did the Smithsonian not collect evidence from the many people like me that were involved in the expedition?
2) why didn't the people at the Smithsonian that seem so worried about balancing this conversation accept Balter's repeated invitation to provide their perspectives to this story anonymously or on record?
Unlike the Smithsonian, Balter appears to have actively pursued perspectives and facts from all sides of this case. That the only people that contributed observations, facts, and perspectives did not see the situation in the same light as the Smithsonian staff named in this article speaks volumes to me.
This is NOT THE SMITHSONIAN I LOVE AND RESPECT. Closed door proceedings by closed mouthed rivals that use flawed methods and incomplete data to fire talented young scientists. All of this after Kris has been cleared of any legal wrongdoings by professional Smithsonian investigators?
It is profoundly sad to me that an investigative reporter stepped in to blow the whistle on this. But it would have been a much worse evil to see this young scientist quietly fired by his rivals. It is a much worse evil that I am working in an environment in which I am too afraid to speak out.
Also, why has NMNH not finished their investigation? we don't know how long it took OIG, but it seems like OIG did their job. What is going on at NMNH? Who is letting this train wreck continue?
In the standard training and manual that all Smithsonian supervisors receive, the handling they give for these kinds of investigations advises that the investigation should be completed within 20 days. This is from the Smithsonian training manual.
I am guessing that OIG followed these guidedances. It looks like NMNH investigation has taken much longer than 20 days. I supposed Mr. Balter can comment on how long he guesses it has taken NMNH not to finish their investigation of Dr. Helgen!
Nice to see Lauren join the discussion. The idea
The OIG investigation took one month exactly. The investigation by Gary Graves formally began no later than last January. It took until late May until the NMNH decided to put Helgen on administrative leave, and until July 1 for Graves to formally recommend that Helgen be fired. The next step is that Helgen and his attorneys have the right to submit documents contesting the charges and the recommendation, followed by an oral interview, followed by a final decision, probably by Kirk Johnson.
I have never said that the three of them entered into some kind of conscious conspiracy to frame Kris Helgen and to get rid of him, despite their antagonism towards him (which might have existed to various degrees in each of them, although witnesses on the expedition say that Darrin and Esther sort of reinforced each other, and Darrin and Nicole are friends from their days at AMNH.)
It is plausible that they thought they saw something that they really didn't, their perceptions colored by their exhaustion from the expedition and their disgruntlement; it is also possible, of course, that Helgen is guilty as charged, and that they are still convinced of that.
The OIG report makes it clear that their charges were considered carefully by trained investigators, and that those charges were discounted after a month. Who knows now whether any of the three of them have had second thoughts about their original allegations? But even if they did, it has been out of their hands for months, after Gary Graves and those in the NMNH administration who enabled him took the allegations and ran with them.
So I can imagine having a certain sympathy with them, and why their friends might be sympathetic as well. They have not yet responded to my own repeated requests that they talk to me off the record; but perhaps some of their friends and supporters could reach out to me and serve as go betweens for communication and information.
And once again, please stop the sanctimony about the confidentiality of the process--everyone talks, everyone, that's why reporters are able to do their work. It's like the old joke: I know you can keep a secret, it's the people you tell I am worried about.
I submitted this comment yesterday but it still hasn't appeared. Some of this has been discussed by the last few comments, especially most recently by Michael, but I will repost it as it still contains relevant information. It is below:
I really appreciate your attempts to bring this issue to light. I think your source at NMNH said it best: "The museum has utterly failed Kris." Hopefully your reporting will lead to a fair and impartial evaluation of these actions (assuming the OIG investigation wasn't already enough to clear him).
I think it is worth highlighting that none of these accusations violates the spirit of the relevant laws, which are designed to protect rare species and avoid exploitation of Kenya. Conservation of these rare animals is the whole point of the research and there appears to be no concern with how the samples were obtained in the first place. I think it's telling that Helgen appears to have the full support of his Kenyan collaborator, Agwanda, and the Kenyan authorities do not appear to be the ones raising a fuss. The letter of the law certainly matters and these important protections would be nonexistent without it, but I think backing up and discussing whether the goals of the legislation are being met is relevant.
On the less positive side, I too am concerned that your piece, and especially this blog post and comments, are unfair to Lunde, Edmison, and Langan. Perhaps I'm being naive, but I tend to feel that, like fecal material, the benefit of the doubt should flow downhill. You shoot down the "false suggestions that Helgen and his team were caught by customs inspectors trying to smuggle animal specimens out of Kenya.", which is excellent, but have you replaced them with a different set of rumors that Helgen's staff is maliciously trying to get him fired due to "an atmosphere of rivalries, jealousies, and conflicts"?
One of the most important components missing in your telling of this story is that if "the three seriously misunderstood or misinterpreted what they were being asked to do", then they would have been in a situation where they were not only being asked to hide (what they thought was) Helgen's and Young's wrongdoing, but (they thought) they were being asked to break the law as well. It doesn't matter if your boss is your mentor and best friend (or if you've been grumbling about him), if your boss tells you to break the law, you're supposed to refuse to do so and talk to your boss's boss. Likewise, you speak poorly of the three staffers for refusing to speak to you, but they have been instructed to not speak about the case. It looks to me like they've been impugned by your piece, but they appear to have done exactly what they were supposed to do (given their misunderstanding). And, like Helgen, they are forbidden from defending themselves.
It looks to me like the story may be 1) the three staffers misunderstood Helgen and thought he was asking them to act illegally, 2) the staffers refused to follow those instructions and informed Helgen's superiors, 3) an investigation occurred by the OIG and the actions were not deemed to be illegal, and 4) the recommendation was made to fire Helgen anyway.
Based on the limited information available, it appears that Helgen acted in good faith. Is there any reason to believe that Lunde, Edmison, and Langan didn't also act appropriately to the best of their knowledge? It looks to me like the story here is a big misunderstanding followed by a massive screwup at the administrative level of the Smithsonian that is serving to railroad Helgen. What am I missing here? Why can't I be on Team Helgen and Team Lunde-Edmison-Langan at the same time?
The hypothesis that there was a big misunderstanding followed by a massive administrative screwup is an attractive one that would fit the available facts. But in my article and the blog, I tried to explore WHY there might have been a misunderstanding. If there was one, I believe it clearly had its origins in the tensions between Helgen and his staff. Perhaps Helgen shares some blame for that; he certainly was known to have high expectations of his staff and by all reports the expedition was tough and challenging (it got very cold at the Upper Camp on Mt Kenya where Darrin was working; Esther was at the Lower Camp, and there was also a Middle Camp.)
This is what the investigator, Gary Graves, should have explored. I know about it because I talked to many expedition members. Why didn't Graves do that?
Seems strange to me that NMNH would recommend firing Helgen without solid grounds and without it reviewed by Graves superiors and their human resources department. Nothing happens with govt employees without going through all the motions to cover their butts. There must be something that's hasn't been shared yet.
OIG investigated the original reports by Darrin and Esther that Helgen may have violated Kenyan and US laws by trying to export specimens without proper authorization. This was essentially a criminal investigation. Presumably in their interviews with those two, although the OIG report is not that specific, Darrin and Esther related everything they thoughts was improper, including the attempts to hide specimens from KWS people. OIG concluded that no laws, nor Smithsonian directives, had been violated.
The Gary Graves investigation went over the same ground, charges 2 and 3 and discussed in my story in The Verge, and found a different conclusion. Graves also investigated the issue of the signature, charge 1, which was not dealt with by OIG, at least not according to its report.
The problem with all this is that OIG is supposed to retain its role as investigator of criminal violations, and normally those ARE NOT supposed to be handled by department chairs like Graves. I cannot talk about the source of my information about OIG procedures but I have that on good authority.
While I do not have information on this, I have to assume that Graves consulted with the NMNH's office of general counsel and Human Resources in arriving at his conclusions, at least about the conclusion that Helgen should be fired.
To summarize: In my opinion, based on my reporting, it was inappropriate for Graves to be investigating charges 2 and 3 which involved alleged violations of US and Kenyan laws. More importantly, unless someone can tell me different, I do not believe there is any evidence that Graves had the proper training to carry out such a criminal investigation.
I hope that helps, let me know if you have any questions. I will probably be getting into these issues in another blog post.
"Something like copying a signature is common practice if one finds that there are a number of forms for the same purpose and the person responsible for signing them is oceans away."
I have been told the same thing by numerous other field researchers.
To just say that is is common practice gives people like me and other field researchers a bad reputation.
Honest officer, I hit that guy because everyone else was doing it. Therefore it must have been ok. Please take off the handcuffs.
Bad logic Mr Balter.
Ill bite on the Smithonsian not allowing Helgen to comment on the paper. It is a shame, but isn't he on administrative leave. Since I dont know exactly what that means by Smithsonian, at my university it would mean that he isnt allowed to do anything on behalf of his institution.
This does not sound like forgery, this makes it sound like it was an electronic signature that was being carried forward on a DRAFT/revised document that (and here comes the important part) was not even submitted. It sounds like Helgen was waiting for it to get finalized and then was going to get approval before submitting. I have had signatures from higher ups carried through when a document needs to be revised, and then simply got permission to submit the final version. If he submitted a signature on a revised document without approval that would be bad, but that is not what happened.
To the most recent commenter: You’ve redirected the comments from “minutia” to unsubstantiated name-calling. I have never met Graves or Johnson and don’t feel particularly inclined to defend either of them, but here you have hurled insults toward both individuals without backing up your claims. Which other curators have had similar experiences with Graves? By what metric is Johnson unqualified to be the director of the museum? Where is your evidence?
Seriously, one of the major issues here is that people have spread rumors about Helgen despite (a) apparently having weak evidence, or no evidence, to back those rumors up, and (b) not being qualified to judge whether Helgen is guilty of the misconduct that they claim he has committed. What you are doing to Graves and Johnson here is eerily similar to what Graves, Lunde, Langan, and Edmison are accused of having done to Helgen. Just because you like Helgen and hate Johnson, that doesn’t make your comment okay.
The expedition was originally planned for 2014, then delayed multiple times. Kearney did not start at the NMNH until August 24 2015, at which point Helgen was already in Kenya - so how can you say that Kearney “approved” the expedition? And even if she did approve it (according to whatever definition of “approve” you are using here), that doesn’t give Helgen the right to copy her signature without her explicit permission. Regardless of whether an anonymous blog commenter believes that “chances are” Kearney would have agreed with Helgen’s changes to the MTA, Helgen is still not entitled to copy her signature without facing consequences!
You need to stop throwing insults around, and get a better grasp of the relevant facts before commenting further. Whatever bad experiences you may have had with Graves and Johnson do not entitle you to mischaracterize Kearney’s role in this situation, or to engage in baseless speculation about how she would have felt about misconduct involving her own signature.
As was stated previously paperwork was never submitted. So what consequences? I have my dean's signature on a PDF and could affix it to any number of documents, but if I never submit them is a crime committed?
So I guess the next question is whether this charge alone should lead to Helgen's termination, or at most a reprimand given his clean record up until then.
If he should not be fired for this charge, then the question of whether he deliberately tried to violate U.S. and Kenyan laws--and perhaps even conspired to do so with Hillary Young--becomes paramount. Readers have to decide based on what they know from my reporting or their own sources how credible these charges are.
Instead I want to just briefly remind readers of something I think they already know more or less: The difference between a feature story based on investigative journalism, eg as published in The Verge, and a blog, which is a writer's tribune to express his or her opinions.
The piece in The Verge is that publication's article of record on the Helgen case. It is based on a month of reporting and it does come to some conclusions about a number of factual issues, and it makes some speculations about things that cannot be known for sure or that it is too soon to know. It went through editing and review by three editors for The Verge, the science editor, the managing editor, and the editor-in-chief, and was also reviewed by lawyers. The Verge is owned by Vox media.
My personal blog is more opinionated, but I would argue that my opinions are informed by my reporting rather than just idle speculation about what happened. Moreover, the blog also allows me to put forward facts and reporting that we did not have room for in the story, long as it was. I will be doing that more and more as time goes on, until it's time to publish the next story in The Verge. Clearly, I am leaning one way on this, and I welcome other interpretations as many have expressed here. And I have repeatedly invited those with actual information to get in touch with me, just as my 40+ sources on the original story were willing to do.
From a legal perspective, Dr. Helgen's copying of the signature was not a crime. Copying a signature is not illegal unless it is done with intent to defraud. At a minimum, because Dr. Helgen did not submit the copied signature to governmental authorities, there is no evidence Dr. Helgen copied the signature with intent to deceive anyone. Furthermore, as detailed extensively by Mr. Balter's article and blog post, there is plenty of corroborating evidence that Dr. Helgen was not intending to deceive governmental authorities given the supporting statements that Dr. Helgen would have obtained Dr. Kearney's permission before he using the copied signature.
-Kieran Dwyer, Esq.
It seems to me that this whole thing went in reverse. Normally, investigations would be conducted at a low level first and then move up. So the more logically route would have been NMNH internal investigation, appeal, OIG investigation, right? I assume it went to OIG first because the accusations involved possible breaches of US and international law rather than SI or NMNH directives / procedures?
If that is the case, does NMNH have a legal leg to stand on if they chose to fire Kris on the basis of the Graves investigation? It is almost like being cleared by SCOTUS and then imprisoned by the village council. Given that Graves (presumably) has no formal training in legal matters such as this, he wouldn't seem to have standing to overrule an OIG decision, regardless of whether his investigation was biased or not. I'm sure this is something Kris' lawyers will bring up in their appeal, but it seems bizarre that things even went this way to begin with and I wonder if this leaves NMNH open to possible legal action if they do rule against Kris ultimately?
I am not an attorney, so I can only talk about what I found out from reporting. Yes, it's true that it went to OIG first because the allegations concerned violations of US and Kenyan laws, and OIG is responsible for those kinds of charges.
But I am told that the museum, which has its own leadership and organizational structure even though it is part of the Smithsonian, does have the authority and procedures to investigate allegations on its own and terminate employees (although it has to go through standard federal rules to do that, like a Proposal to Remove and the right to a defense.) I have reason to think that the museum would argue that its investigation was broader than OIG's, and the signature issue--not normally a criminal offense--would not usually be something that OIG would handle. But you are right that the NMNH, by investigating what were essentially criminal matters, has left itself open to a vigorous defense by Helgen's attorneys, especially if he were to be fired.
Ie, if Helgen's internal appeal to museum officials fails, the whole thing would go to the courts assuming that he decides to continue to fight.
I hope that helps. The lines here are not clearly drawn and so it's hard for me to make them crystal clear, much as I would want to.
As an attorney, I want to respond to a couple of questions raised in the comment thread about the legal process and Dr. Helgen’s rights. But first, I should state that I do not represent Dr. Helgen or any party involved in this matter and my analysis is based solely on Mr. Balter’s article. My analysis could change based on the contents of any internal Smithsonian policies, Dr. Helgen’s employment contract, or other internal documents.
There are two key legal irregularities that taint this process. The first irregularity is the fact that Dr. Helgen appears to have been denied due process in this matter. As an employee of a government trust entity, Dr. Helgen should be entitled to due process in the investigation. This investigation appears to have denied Dr. Helgen due process in three key ways. First, Dr. Helgen was cleared by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), but then had his case re-opened by unnamed Smithsonian officials. The OIG is a Congressionally-created and independent body charged with investigating fraud, waste, and abuse, and its investigation meets the general criteria for due process. For example, the OIG is a neutral party that provides the opportunity for the accused to be heard and does not unduly delay its investigation. The OIG’s decision should have been final in this matter. The mere fact that Smithsonian officials re-opened the case after Dr. Helgen was vindicated by the OIG suggests that Dr. Helgen is not being afforded due process.
Second, the second investigation is overseen by someone who is biased against Dr. Helgen. Due process requires that Dr. Helgen have a neutral decision-maker in his case. Unlike the OIG process, this process appears to be weighted against Dr. Helgen in a manner designed to advance interests other than a fair hearing (which was provided in the OIG investigation).
Third, unlike the OIG investigation, which was completed in approximately a month, the second investigation has gone on for almost eight months, during which time Dr. Helgen’s work has been significantly and wrongly impeded. (While a separate issue, preventing Dr. Helgen from speaking publicly about research unrelated to the investigation is likely a violation of his First Amendment rights). The unnecessarily long investigation is detrimental to Dr. Helgen (whether intentional or not) because it impedes Dr. Helgen’s work, facilitates collusion by his accusers, and gives his accusers the opportunity to spread rumors to which Dr. Helgen has been unable to respond. The spread of damaging rumors is very problematic in this case, as the rumors have obviously spread far enough to reach the press.
The second key legal problem here is that some of Dr. Helgen’s opponents may have crossed the line into defamation. If any of Dr. Helgen’s opponents spread false accusations against Dr. Helgen after the OIG cleared him, those opponents will not be able to defend their statements as a misunderstanding. Instead, those opponents will appear to have intentionally spread a false narrative for the purpose of damaging Dr. Helgen’s career. If Dr. Helgen is fired from the Smithsonian, he will have a strong legal claim for defamation against any of those opponents. As a result, those opponents could face significant financial liability. Ironically, the best way for Dr. Helgen’s opponents to avoid this liability is for Dr. Helgen to be vindicated, which would minimize the damages.
Kieran Dwyer, Esq.
One might add that if no other NMNH curators were investigated as to field based procedures this could constitute a hostile work environment and thus wrongful dismissal.