NOAA’s Bizarre Unfolding Fiscal Scandal
National Weather Service Head Pushed Out in Frantic Damage Control Drill
Washington, DC — To bury bad news in Washington, agencies often hold off releasing until Friday; bad news is often held until the Friday before a three-day weekend. That was the case last Friday, May 25th, the day before the Memorial Day weekend, when the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) disclosed that millions of dollars had been illegally “reprogrammed” within its National Weather Service (NWS) whose leader abruptly retired effective four days later (yesterday), according to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
NOAA’s leader, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, revealed that she had received a completed report on these fiscal improprieties back on May 11 but held off going public for two weeks. Despite calling for greater transparency in NOAA budgetary operations, Dr. Lubchenco did not release the 60-page internal Investigative Report or its 88 exhibits. Instead, she released a decision memo with her reactions, leaving a growing list of unanswered questions:
- How much money was involved and over how many years? Reports of affected funds range from $30 million to $100 million and the investigative team only looked at FY 2010 and 2011;
- NOAA appears to claim that it had no knowledge of the NWS budgetary imbalances that supposedly led to illegal fund transfers, yet those very imbalances were repeatedly raised to NOAA by the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the principal affected union;
- Why were whistleblower reports ignored for almost two years by control agencies, each of which “did not take timely action when notified of alleged improprieties,” according to Lubchenco?;
- Where was/is the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Commerce? Not only did OIG deflect insider disclosures but the office was not part of the team producing the report. Even now, NOAA is “contracting with outside independent firms to conduct a financial audit and a program audit of NWS,” according to Lubchenco, yet these audits are typically grist for the OIG; and
- “Under Secretary Lubchenco has assured me that appropriate disciplinary action is being taken regarding those involved,” according to Commerce Undersecretary Rebecca Blank. But if NWS employees acted under the direction of now-departed NWS head Dr. Jack Hayes, how can they be punished for following orders? Moreover, the actions supposedly violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, which forbids obligating funds without congressional appropriation and carries criminal sanctions but there is no mention of referring cases to the Department of Justice.
“NOAA should not be allowed to self-investigate and exonerate its political leadership,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out union claims that budget juggling was needed to avoid needless furloughs of NWS employees. “We do not know whether faithful public servants are being scapegoated to divert attention from colossally dysfunctional management.”
This mess unfolds in the middle of a disastrous FY 2013 NOAA budget campaign. Citing costs of new weather satellites, NOAA proposed a whole series of budget cuts, the most troubling of which were to jettison tsunami readiness programs. These latter cuts were not featured in public briefings but buried in NOAA budget documents and publicized by PEER. In the bi-partisan backlash that ensued, virtually all of the NOAA cuts have been reversed in both houses of Congress and the Democratically-controlled Senate (with GOP support) moved the satellites out of NOAA’s budget entirely – giving the program to NASA. The net result will shrink the NOAA budget by a third –from $5.1 to $3.4 billion.
“NOAA’s brain trust appears to have a reverse Midas touch on budgetary matters,” added Ruch, noting that congressional leaders, such as U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, are calling for increased scrutiny in areas that have rarely been controversial. “Given the implosion of NOAA credibility, Congress needs to step up to the oversight plate if we want honest answers.”