Investigation Fails to Sort out Weather Service Fiscal Scandal
NOAA Casts Blame but Cannot Find Cause for Massive Budgetary Check Kiting
Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed this spring that its National Weather Service (NWS) had been illegally shifting millions of dollars among accounts to cover shortfalls in basic weather forecasting operations. An internal NOAA investigation was unable to pinpoint the size, duration or root causes of the shortfall, according to the 61-page report obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) under the Freedom of Information Act.
The investigative report was transmitted to Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere on May 11, 2012 – two weeks before she made the scandal public. An earlier NOAA probe back in November 2011 confirmed that “unauthorized reprogramming” of funds had occurred and the NWS Chief Financial Officer was placed “on indefinite administrative leave.” No public statement was made at that time, however. Instead, a “senior investigative team” was assembled and “conducted more than 30 interviews of over 20 witnesses, performed extensive financial analysis…and examined large numbers of documents, e-mails, memoranda, and spreadsheets pertinent to the allegations…”
This follow-on investigation confined itself to events during FY 2010 and 2011 but was not able to –
- Ascertain the size of the structural deficit, citing estimates that “range from $35.0 million to $99.0 million.” In one four month period, there “appeared to be a reprogramming of approximately $10 million.” The inquiry could not tell how long massive money shifting had been occurring;
- Decide among “several explanations for the NWS ‘structural deficit’” offered by witnesses. The report ultimately recommended an entirely new review to determine “whether financial problems existed within NWS because of program dysfunction”; and
- Assess blame beyond the departed NWS head Dr. Jack Hayes. Nonetheless, the report found “The perceived NWS budget deficits were not a secret, and managers within NWS and throughout NOAA had heard that such a shortfall existed” but no one did anything about it.
“This report suggests that the blind are leading the blind at NOAA,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that investigators called for addressing “transparency problems regarding budget issues” in a section so heavily redacted by NOAA that it is largely unreadable. “NOAA has yet to come clean about what happened inside the Weather Service accounts and why, or what will be done about it.”
For nearly two years, multiple whistleblower reports to both the Commerce Office of Inspector General (IG) and NOAA had been ignored. One early report to the IG Hotline went directly to the “zero file.”
“At Commerce, the IG is not just asleep at the switch but seems to have lapsed into a coma,” added Ruch, noting that the Commerce IG has also been sitting on detailed allegations of misconduct in the NOAA Fisheries Observer program for nearly a year. “The Inspector General is supposed to prevent federal departments from self-vindicating malfeasance by their own senior managers but at NOAA the IG appears to provide no check at all.”