July 25, 2020

O'Melveny lawyer threatened scientists in a way that had "life-and-death consequences"

       Before I get into the details of the story, please let me provide some background on Michael Walsh, because I worked with him at O’Melveny. He was one of the people who wrote my final review there. My impression was that he was another of the firm’s over-promoted associates: associates who had used political connections to get promoted to partner, and who were now making millions of dollars per year even though they didn’t really have much work or clients of their own. Of course, O’Melveny’s other money-grubbing partners are not keen on paying someone who isn’t pulling their weight -- and so I wasn't surprised to see him leave for government in 2018 after only five years as partner. I assume he’s trying to use the O’Melveny strategy of “monetizing” government positions to build a large private sector income stream for himself. Anyway, onto the story.

       Back in September 1, 2019, President Trump tweeted that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. Alabamans became scared, and to quell those fears the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service (“NWS”) issued a tweet saying that Dorian would not hit Alabama. This led to news articles and social media comments criticizing President Trump’s apparent error. Then on September 4, President Trump (or someone in his office) used a Sharpie marker to redo an NWS map, to show that Dorian would hit Alabama -- presumably to prove that the president was right all along -- for which he was again mocked. Taken together all of this is fine so far. No harmful result. Just some entertainment; a way to pass the time with comedy and banter. 

       But that wasn’t the end of it. Thinking it would help President Trump, Michael Walsh reportedly sent “crazy in the middle of the night” texts and phone calls to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) -- allegedly threatening their jobs. The NOAA is the federal agency that houses the NWS, in other words they’re the bosses of the NWS's Birmingham office. (Mr. Walsh denies threatening anyone.) Frightened by Mr. Walsh’s threats, the NOAA issued a statement on September 6, rebuking the Birmingham office and validating President Trump’s original tweet. This was no longer entertaining banter; now scientists were being threatened and told what to say. 

       Fortunately, there are still decent people in government, and the inspector general recently issued a lengthy report on the matter. Pages 21-37 of the report have the details that I summarized above, but more important is the report’s conclusion, which states that:
  • “[T]he rebuk[e] [of] NWS Birmingham . . . created the possibility that forecasters would second-guess or delay their public safety tweets or warnings — an issue with life-and-death consequences[.]” Report at p. 45.
  • “Mr. Walsh . . . failed to fully understand and prioritize NOAA’s and NWS’s public safety role.” Report at p. 46.

       I think Mr. Walsh understood what was going on quite well, but his personal pecuniary and career goals overrode those public safety concerns. That’s kind of the point of this blog. When you interact with an O’Melveny attorney, there’s a good chance you’re interacting with an opportunist who will say and do anything to help themself, without any concern about how they might harm innocent people. Please be careful. 

       I'll update this article if the Department of Commerce responds to my request for comment.

       [Addendum: An editorial argues that this anti-science attitude foreshadowed the administration's handling of the covid-19 pandemic.]
O'Melveny, omm, coronavirus