The Savaging of Detlev Helmig, Citizen 

Oil rigs in Colorado. Photo: BLM.

If you were a university president, watching his university slowly sink back into the earth from the weight of administrative overhead, compounded by a mismanaged national health crisis, wouldn’t you welcome any light?  Wouldn’t you treasure a faculty member who was not only a valued mentor and teacher, but a renowned atmospheric scientist who had published over 200 peer reviewed papers, and had served on many national and international scientific panels, including the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)?

Wouldn’t his value to the university only increase if he were also an editor-in-chief of one of the most prestigious geoscience journals in the United States, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene?

And what if on top of all this he cost the university nothing? What if, in fact, he was a cash cow, one who, as lead scientist or co-lead, had brought in over 90 projects and $30 million in grants to the university?

And what if not only his salary, but the salary of his associates, historically as many as 10 people, were paid from these grants?   In addition, what if the university demanded and received add-ons of up to 60 percent to cover its “administrative” costs?

Wouldn’t every reasonably sane university president with an ounce of business sense value this man not only for his accomplishments and the money he brings to the budget challenged university, but for the gild he added to the university’s escutcheon?

Such a man does exist.  His name is Dr. Detlev Helmig.  And so does such a university.  It is the University of Colorado.  It has a new president, Mark Kennedy, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.  The university’s Board of Regents hired him last year, despite substantial student and faculty opposition, for his purported business acumen—acumen so great, in fact, that the regents awarded him a compensation package in excess of one million dollars annually.

Dr. Helmig worked at the University of Colorado-Boulder for 25 years as both a teacher and atmospheric scientist.  Never had he received anything but an above satisfactory performance review from his bosses.

Yet, on one recent spring morning he was told to expect a Zoom call from the administration.  The call came, and he was unceremoniously shown the door in less than 30 minutes.   He was given no opportunity to confront his accusers or mount a defense.  His office and lab keys, email records, and websites with their air-quality data were confiscated.  For good measure, his name was excised from the university rolls immediately.  Kafka’s K has nothing on Helmig.

These unprecedented actions have allowed the university to highjack all of Helmig’s research projects and the associated grant money.  These grants had come to Helmig because of his reputation and standing, not to the university.  It is only the caretaker.  Yet, the university has cavalierly redistributed these funds to others, but some projects, such as the only global network for monitoring volatile organic compounds and the only continuous monitoring of these pollutants in the Arctic have come to a complete stop for a lack of the scientific leadership Helmig alone provided.

So what was Dr. Helmig’s unpardonable sin?  Why had he become the equivalent of a used swizzle stick in the eyes of the university’s administration?  Well, according to first accounts released by the university he was fired because his bookkeeping wasn’t very good.  He had “blurred lines” between public research done with the grant money he brought to the university, most of which had come from the National Science Foundation, and other public money that had been awarded to his personal business enterprise, Boulder A.I.R., Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research.  In essence, his wrongdoing was that he was conducting air quality research for the benefit of the public, but from within two different organizations, one of which didn’t carry the 60 percent university add-on.

Melanie Marquez Parra, the administration’s spokesperson, wrote in an email that, “the university determined, after careful review and consideration, that the separation of work and resources was not being maintained and a separation of the university from Dr. Helmig and his commercial enterprise was required.”

Most people and especially those with great business acumen are probably scratching their heads at this point, for what Ms. Parra describes are the results of what would normally be considered an internal audit, the purpose of which should be to fix things, not start shooting wildly with guns trained inward in the proverbial circle.

What role new President Mark Kennedy had in this academic Auto de fe is unknown.  All we do know is that university administrators got in a circle and started shooting away at a man caught in the middle

But that’s only the beginning. The administration’s motivations get even murkier, for as Dr. Helmig’s attorney, Joe Salazar, a civil right attorney and former legislator, has shown in his rebuttal to the administration’s charges, Helmig could not have been mixing money, for he’s not the grant money’s banker.  The university is its banker and bookkeeper.  He simply writes the grants, the university banks the money, takes its cut for overhead, and Helmig makes charges against the remainder to pay himself and his associates.  Presumably, the university’s bookkeepers review the charges before paying them.  So, if the university is unhappy with the bookkeeping, it is unhappy with itself, and should be taking account.

So what is the real reason Helmig’s life was turned upside down in a breathlessly bungled and baseless blood-letting?   Can it be known?

What we do know is that almost immediately the reasons for the university’s savaging of Helmig began to morph.  The public’s outrage as it learned of the firing undoubtedly caused some of the stutter-stepping.

For example the Republican dominated Board of Regents wasted little time in responding to the many emails and letters it received concerning Helmig’s lunch-break execution.

This is one of the first in a series of form letters.  There was at least one other letter widely circulated, and the story it tells is significantly different. This is the pertinent paragraph in one of the early form letters:

While we are not at liberty to discuss the specifics of personnel actions, I can assure you we addressed this matter with the utmost seriousness and did not make a decision without full and fair consideration of the facts. The University had legitimate reasons to take the action we did, and we have provided these reasons to Dr. Helmig. No political or donor considerations played any part in the University’s decision.

Forget the clunky pronoun usage, even from a body that aspires to guide higher education in the state.  What is important is that the Regents assert, quite clearly, that they know the facts and the facts will support the administration’s decision.

These assertions of proud certainty and godlike probity are absent from a second form letter. This is what it says:

While we are not at liberty to discuss the specifics of personnel actions, I can assure you we addressed this matter with the utmost seriousness and did not make a decision without full and fair consideration of the facts. The university had legitimate reasons to take the action we did, and we have provided these reasons to Dr. Helmig.  More information is being gathered and will be provided to him soon.  Prior to terminating his employment, the university asked the Department of Internal Audit to independently review Dr. Helmig’s activities.  Dr. Helmig is aware of this investigation, and once it is complete, he will be provided a copy.

We expect the internal audit findings to confirm that we made the right decision at the right time.  Any impact on research is unfortunate but we hope it is only temporary….

It didn’t take long for the CU administration to declare it would conduct a second internal audit to discover if the “facts” they relied on in the first audit to fire Helmig were correct.   Besides the bureaucratic two-step on display, the most important thing to take away from these letters is the numbing lack of empathy for a man whose reputation has been publicly pilloried.  This is what passes for justice in the neoliberal age, where institutions and corporations are the concerns of the ruling class, and the people are their piñatas.

In addition to the many letters written to the Regents, a letter was written to CU’s new president, Mark Kennedy, asking for an independent investigation.   It was signed by many local and grassroots organizations in the state, national organizations such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which authored the letter, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as a number of dignitaries, scientists, and academics, including former Governor Richard Lamm.

The invisible million-dollar president has never responded, raising the suspicion that he may prove the students and faculty at CU right.  In a campus survey prior to his hiring only 10 percent thought he would be successful at the university, largely because of his extremely conservative voting record in Congress.  For context, it may help to know Michele Bachmann replaced him in his old Minnesota district.

It might also help to know that Glen Gonzales, the Regent chair signing the Helmig enquiries, was also a regent a few years earlier when CU students came before the board to ask they divest from fossil fuels.  The kids were held up to ridicule by the Republican majority.  You know, the old demeaning questions like, did you drive a car to get here?, with some regents clucking wisely they didn’t believe in climate change.

Well, after several months, the new audit undertaken to prove up the old audit was released.  But it wasn’t released to Helmig as promised.  It was released to the Boulder Camera, one of the many hedge-fund owned newspapers in Colorado.  The newsrooms in all the papers it owns, including the Denver Post, have been hollowed out to make the papers profitable, and the news is sometimes totally unreliable.

The Camera’s reporter obediently wrote what the university alleged in the new audit, which was pretty much what the old audit alleged, but with a couple of new wrinkles.

First, we learn the administration actually set up its own little STASI unit to spy on Helmig’s private business, Boulder A.I.R.  They broke into the company’s control buildings taking every manner of picture hoping to show that Helmig was using university equipment.  They found nothing.  This may help explain why the administration added a new claim:  Helmig now owes the administration over $700,000.  The administration wants its 60 percent from all revenues generated by Boulder A.I.R.  The takeaway? Before he became their piñata he was their chattel, and always has been.

Many observers think Helmig’s Boulder A.I.R. endeavor is the source of his problem and that the oil and gas industry is behind this business up to its bradenhead.  This is supported by the fact that a blog from an industry trade group, Western Energy Alliance, was the first to gleefully announce Helmig’s firing.

Despite university assertions to the contrary, and as Joe Salazar’s rebuttal shows, Boulder A.I.R. was started with CU’s knowledge and approval, so that a long-standing and prestigious contract with the regulatory equivalent of our EPA in Germany would not be lost.  It objected to paying the university’s 60 percent overhead charge since most of the work Helmig would be doing for it was at a station in the Alps, and shouldn’t therefore carry the 60 percent “on campus” overhead charge.

As knowledge of its existence grew, Boulder A.I.R. began to be asked by local communities such as Longmont and Broomfield to help them monitor their already severely compromised air quality.  They preferred to deal directly with Helmig rather than pay the university’s 60 percent overhead cost.  Helmig actually attempted to carry the university’s water, but the university’s bureaucratic labyrinth was simply impenetrable according to Salazar’s rebuttal.

These cities were particularly concerned by the state’s approval of new fracking mega-pads right in their midst.  These approvals came despite a state law, SB 181, passed in the spring of 2019, requiring an evaluation process that promised protection of public health and the environment as a condition to be met before new wells were approved.  The Polis administration had effectively confounded, if not outright repealed, the law through a series of astonishingly muddle-headed implementation forays.  Indeed, after almost a year and half of being voted out of the legislature, no significant changes in Polis administration policy to protect the pubic and the environment have occurred, with over 3000 wells being approved since his administration took office in January of 2019.

This lack of progress resulted in a stinging rebuke to the responsible agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, from the four primary legislative sponsors of the aging law last week, relating in some detail how the COGCC’s bumbling interpretations had made a mockery of the law and its intent.

The Polis administration has not yet responded.

It is against this background that communities understandably sought out Dr Helmig’s expertise to evaluate their air quality and oil and gas impacts on it.  The state simply was refusing to do what the law required.  As a result Helmig was doing their job of monitoring air pollution from oil and gas operations.  What he found was that when the winds were out of he north or east, the pollution from the oil fields in Weld County was having a deleterious effect on Front Range residents—all of them.

There’s an Irish proverb that says we stand in the shadows of each other.   Dr Helmig, in an act expressing our shared humanity, was engaged in shadow sharing.  In so doing he incurred the wrath of the industry, the rebuke of some local governments, like Weld County that are more dedicated to the oil and gas industry than the protection of their citizens, and the disfavor of a few state regulators.

There are a couple of backstories here.  As stated earlier, the first to report Dr. Helmig’s firing was Western Energy Alliance, a nasty little group of flacks for the oil industry.  When they knew of the firing is unknown, as is how they might have influenced it. Their president, Kathleen Sgamma, was recently reported to have been a prime mover in getting the Trump administration to repeal the EPA requirement that the industry measure methane releases on Federal land.

Methane is a huge climate problem since it has a heat retention capacity 120 times that of CO2 over the critical 10-year horizon in which we must start to control planet warming or all bets are off. What is more, methane releases in the field carry poisonous hitchhikers like benzene.  Thus it has a double whammy:  it is increasing global warming exponentially when compared to CO2, and it is a severe health threat to populations living near all industry infrastructure, not just the wells. Kathleen Sgamma said in an email concerning the Trump administration’s decision not to measure methane: “It would have been a waste of time to submit data that weren’t going to be used.  I merely called this to their attention.”

There is also the ongoing disagreement between the climate scientists at CU and NOAA, which has a major climate office in Boulder, and the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, APCD.  The state claims that the air quality along the northern Front Range, which includes the major population centers in the state, is getting better.  Mostly the state relies on data provided by the oil industry, which they feed into decades old formulas developed by EPA to derive that conclusion.  This happy news does not comport with the fact that the Front Range has been out of ozone compliance for over a decade and recently dropped from EPA’s “moderate” to “serious” classification, with a further drop to “severe” very possible.  Garrison Kaufman, the lawyer in charge of the APCD, was formerly a corporate lawyer.  The Newmont Mining Company, a Canadian company with a large, polluting gold mining operation west of Colorado Springs, was his client.  Reportedly, as director of the APCD, he has allowed his former client to continue operations for several years without the air pollution permits required by state law.

Helmig’s state of the art measurements give the lie to the state’s claims of improving air quality.  In fact, he recently wrote in a literature review paper that our pollution problems could be twice as high as the state is claiming.  Discrediting Helmig and his work favors several interests.

Finally, if anyone still believes Helmig was fired because he was a bad bookkeeper, this bit of information should grind to pumice whatever remains of the mountain of lies the university concocted to explain away Helmig’s termination.  The day Dr. Helmig was fired his longtime lab assistant, Jacques Hueber, was also fired.  Like Helmig, he did no bookkeeping, but he did help Helmig build the state of the art measuring devises they employed for air monitoring at CU and Boulder A.I.R. Hueber had worked at CU for 16 years.  Not a word has been breathed from the administration about why he was fired, or the impacts on his life and prospects.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: