Rotunda of the NMNH (Wikimedia Commons/Blake Patterson)
Today in The Verge, I report on the verdict handed down by National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson in the case of Kris Helgen, accused of misconduct during an expedition in Kenya last year. Helgen received a two week suspension and was stripped of his role as head of the museum's mammal division, despite evidence from my earlier investigation that the investigation into the charges was deeply flawed. The good news is that he kept his job, despite the recommendation of his supervisor, former chair of the vertebrate zoology department Gary Graves, that he be fired.

In today's article I excerpted Helgen's on the record reaction to the news--his first public statement since this whole affair began last November--but here I want to provide readers with his full statement:

"I am glad that the second investigation, internal within the museum, concluded that Gary Graves' proposal to remove me is not warranted and that various charges made by my staff were not supported by evidence and could not be sustained. I am disappointed that Kirk Johnson has nevertheless decided to suspend me without pay for 2 weeks even after I have endured 10 months of badly managed and damaging investigation. In light of the evidence I have provided from multiple sources, there are no grounds for this decision of suspension, or for limiting my duties, including removing my title as Curator. However, this decision does not surprise me. I presented evidence to the Smithsonian that Dr. Johnson was not an impartial party in this case, but he did not recuse himself from making this decision. The internal process is still ongoing, and for the first time I have the chance to appeal the case to higher officials within the Smithsonian who are outside of the limited circle of internal museum administrators who have handled this over the past year. It remains unclear who made the decision to pursue this investigation against me in the aftermath of the earlier investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, which cleared me of any wrongdoing in their review."

Helgen made two other points in his on the record comments: First, that the timing of the suspension interfered with him accepting a major award from the University of Adelaide in Australia; and second, that the two week suspension "is the most severe penalty that can be imposed without him being able to appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent government agency that reviews these decisions for fairness."

Museum officials are not commenting, on the grounds that this is a personnel matter and must remain confidential--even though the employee supposedly being protected wants full transparency. I will be monitoring the progress of Helgen's appeal as it goes forward.

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Anonymous said…
A HBO documentary in the making (can I suggest the title 'Breaking of a Mammalogist')? Thank you for reporting this story - seems there is still much to resolve and understand. The only outcome from the internal investigation appears to be the creation of a toxic work environment - what an appalling reflection on the NMNH.
Michael Balter said…
It is true there is still much to resolve and understand. A lot of the background has yet to fully come out, due to the sensitivity of some of the information and the danger revealing it could pose to some sources; I hope to be able to tell more of the story at some point soon.
Anonymous said…
Why hasn't the Vert Zoology website been updated yet?