Jagadish Shukla may be regretting he ever signed a controversial letter to President Obama.
The climate scientist at George Mason University made headlines when he was the lead signatory on a letter to Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy “strongly” supporting using federal racketeering laws to investigate those in the private or public sector who work with the fossil fuel industry to “undermine climate science.”
The letter, also signed by 19 others, created an uproar, with accusations that the authors were hoping to criminalize those who question how much humans contribute to climate change.
The letter prompted critics to look into the finances of the Institute of Global Environment and Society, one of the organizations Shukla heads at George Mason. They charged the decorated Shukla with fiscal funny business, including potential double-dipping.
Then the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology kicked the controversy to a higher level on Oct. 1 by sending a letter to Shukla informing him of a committee investigation into the management of federal money granted to IGES.
Now, Watchdog.org has learned the committee’s chairman, Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has sent letters to the heads of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation requesting “all documents and communications” made to Shukla and IGES from those respective agencies as part of the committee’s investigation.
Watchdog.org emailed George Mason University, asking for comment, but did not receive a reply from the university’s senior communications manger.
Watchdog.org also asked whether GMU is conducting any kind of review of Shukla’s pay and funding at IGES as well as any comment from university president Ángel Cabrera, but did not receive any replies.
Numerous phone messages left for Shukla have not been returned.
However, on Oct. 7, Shukla told the website Inside Climate News,”I signed this letter as a private citizen on personal time, urging action on climate change, and I have been shocked by the reaction. … Any allegations of inappropriate behavior are untrue.”
The Sept. 1 letter calls on Obama and others to seize on an opinion piece written earlier this year by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to file civil lawsuits.
The letter writers said the RICO law should be aimed against “corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters” who have “knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.”
The RICO statute is commonly used against alleged organized crime figures, but has also been used against tobacco companies summoned before Congress from 1999 to 2006.
The letter does not mention going after colleagues in the scientific community, but was harshly criticized by a number of other climate scientists such as Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry and hurricane expert Peter Webster, who said invoking RICO was at least partly aimed at scientists who question the data and conclusions of such organizations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, often cited by the Obama administration.
The 20 scientists who signed the letter “understand nothing about the policy process, the legal aspects, the political situation, they don’t really understand RICO or the history of how it’s been used,” Curry told Watchdog.org on Sept. 28. “Of course it’s going to involve scientists.”
Then a number of odd things happened to the Internet link of the letter itself.
After the two-page message was posted, it was suddenly taken down after the uproar:
Three days later, the link reappeared.
But instead of taking readers to the letter, there was a brief notation declaring, “The letter that was inadvertently posted on this web site has been removed” and “the IGES web site is in the process of being decommissioned”:
Among the signers were six people from George Mason University, including Barry A. Klinger, a research scientist at the school’s Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies.
Klinger went online to say that other climate scientists are not targets. Rather, potential RICO investigations would be “very narrowly focused on whether companies were engaged in fraud.”
A few days later, Klinger posted that he felt “ambivalence” about the letter: “In much of my other discourse on climate I have tried to avoid getting caught up in the tribalism of competing sides, so I plead guilty to inconsistency in joining in an effort that raises the temperature of the debate.”
Another signatory, Alan Betts, owner and operator of Atmospheric Research in Pittsford, Vermont, said the letter needed to be sent because he believes there is an organized attempt from the oil and gas industry to recruit researchers to sow doubt.
“Bring them to court and make them face up,” Betts told Vermont Watchdog.
Questions about finances
Just days after the letter was made public, University of Colorado environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr. sent out a series of tweets with links indicating Shukla may be double-dipping to the tune of millions of dollars.
No problem with that per se, but Fairfax, Virginia-based George Mason is a public university and paid Shukla $314,000 last year. There is some question about whether his salary at IGES comports with state and federal laws.
Shukla’s salary appears to be sizable. According to IRS documents, Shukla received $333,048 in total compensation from IGES in 2014 for working an average of 28 hours a week.
His wife, Anne, received $166,097 in total compensation as the IGES business manager. National Review reported that Shukla’s daughter is also on the payroll, but her earnings have gone unreported.
In its letter to Shukla, the House Science Committee said IGES “has reportedly received $63 million from taxpayers since 2001, comprising over 98 percent of its total revenue during that time.”
Media representatives from NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation told FoxNews.com their institutions have high standards for the recipients of their grants, but did not go into specifics of the money awarded to IGES.
The Grijalva letter
This isn’t the first time that increasingly polarized climate science has involved Congress.
Something similar happened in March, but the congressman writing those letters was a Democrat.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, the ranking member on the House Committee on Natural Resources, sent letters to the universities of seven climate scientists, questioning their impartiality and demanding the schools provide Grijalva financial information about the scientists.
Georgia Tech’s Curry, who believes the earth is warming but has questioned how much humans are responsible for that, was one of the seven.
“Absolutely, this letter is intimidation,” said Curry, who has testified many times before Congress in her 33-year career, including in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in 2014.
Under fire from critics from the left and right, Grijalva backed down, saying he had overreached.
The Grijalva letter has since been taken down. None of the seven scientists was found to have engaged in any wrongdoing.
So how is the letter from committee chairman Smith any different than the Grijalva letter?
“IGES appears to be almost fully funded by taxpayer money while simultaneously participating in partisan political activity by requesting a RICO investigation of companies and organizations that disagree with the Obama administration on climate change,” Smith said in an email to Watchdog.org.
Smith’s supporters said the committee is not focused on the opinions of scientists but on the potential misuses of federal funds by Shukla and IGES. Of the 20 signatories of the letter to Obama, Shukla was the only one to receive a letter from the House Science Committee.
But the ranking member of the panel sounded surprised after learning about Smith’s letter to Shukla.
“Since the letter contains no specific allegations, I am puzzled as to the chairman’s intent in writing it,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, told Science Insider on Oct. 5. “To be clear about my own position, I would resist any attempt to stifle the constitutionally protected right of any citizen, including the nation’s scientists, to engage in free speech without interference.”