Money Mismanagement Storm at the National Weather Service

Congress this week delved into a money mismanagement cyclone at the National Weather Service that could leave Americans more vulnerable to severe weather events.

Over the past several years, Congress has mostly exceeded the administration’s funding request for the NWS, but for the past several years the NWS has been reporting a budget shortfall.

Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), vice chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, noted at Wednesday’s hearing that the panel had been informed that no NWS employees gained financially through the funds mismanagement. Instead, money designated for critical projects like the advanced weather interactive processing system and weather radio improvement was shuffled toward newer expenses.

“Yes, I’m glad that no one stole money for personal gain, but make no mistake, Congress’s trust — my trust, has been violated,” Adams said.

The hearing painted a picture of a Weather Service with hazy transparency and lack of oversight, as well as an agency with “significant problems with budget and financial controls.”

Despite concerns over the money troubles, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn’t provide a requested witness — the former CFO — to help reconstruct the financial mess, Adams said.

“The committee was willing to work with NOAA, even going as far as allowing the agency to only submit one piece of written testimony, but NOAA still refused,” she said.

“It also makes it difficult for us to not ask, what are you hiding?” Adams added.

Ranking Member Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said the problem goes much deeper than one agency. “While there is no question that wrongdoing occurred at NOAA, just as troubling to me is the failure by the inspector general’s office at the Department of Commerce to take aggressive steps to investigate this matter. The IG is the cop on the beat, so to speak, at federal agencies.”

“After receiving multiple tips, the IG’s office recognized the potential problem, but the response to allegations of high level financial shenanigans seems to have been to send those allegations back to the agency to ask them to check on their own misconduct,” Tonko said. “It seems counterintuitive to me that the best way to ferret out problems is to ask a potential wrongdoers to investigate their own wrongdoing.”

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, deputy administrator for the NOAA, said the alleged misconduct first came to their attention in late November 2011 and one employee was put on leave.

“As we reported upon conclusion of the investigation in May, we found that the Weather Service reprogrammed funds in fiscal years ’10 and ’11 without appropriate congressional notification,” she said. “The mechanisms used were complex and undetectable by existing financial controls. We also found a significant lack of transparency and ineffective oversight of budget execution within the Weather Service.”

But, Sullivan maintained, the “exceptional performance of the Weather Service during Hurricane Isaac confirms” that the budget snafus “have not negatively affected our current warnings and forecasts performance.”

Todd Zinser, the Commerce Department’s inspector general, said his office suspected a $10 million “improper reprogramming issue” with funds at the Weather Service and advised the agency’s to get counsel from their lawyers. The NOAA conducted its own review of similar allegations after being tipped off by the IG’s office.

“We do not have the resources to look into every allegation we receive through the hotline so this is a common method used by IG offices across the government to leverage our resources with those of the agencies to resolve management and administrative matters,” Zinser testified.

Sullivan said there was “an unfortunate and quite ineffective management climate at the senior levels at the weather service” that failed to nip the mismanagement in the bud.

Richard Hirn, general counsel and legislative director of the National Weather Service’s Employees Organization, told members that “staffing reductions are simply not an option for mitigating the Weather Service structural shortfall.”

“The 122 forecast offices operate 24/7, and most of the time, there are just two forecasters on duty who have responsibility for protecting the lives of nearly 3 million people on average,” Hirn said.

“Had the incoming administration relied on our advice or had at least taken us seriously with the information we provided them, this whole reprogramming problem, unauthorized reprogramming problem that we’ve had over the past two years would never have happened, because the problem would have been fixed two or three years ago had they gone back and — the new administration, in their budget request to Congress, had fixed the structural shortfall,” the employees’ rep added.