The House Committee on Science Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a September 12 hearing to examine unauthorized reprograming of funding within the National Weather Service (NWS). A 2011 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report and a 2012 joint NOAA and Department of Commerce (DOC) report provided the basis for memos issued by NOAA and DOC. These memos provided details about the transfer of NWS funds without Congressional authorization or notification. This led to NOAA and DOC investigations which culminated in a May 11 investigative report “Internal Inquiry into Alleged Mismanagement of Funds Within the National Weather Service.”
The Director of the NWS, Jack Hays, stepped down in late May amidst the internal investigations. Laura Furgione was named Acting Assistant Administrator of the NWS. A memo on the investigative report written by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco revealed that investigators found evidence of inappropriately reprogramed funds during 2010 and 2011. The amount of reallocated funds came to $43.8 million. The NWS budget for FY 2010 was $892.1 million and the budget for FY 2011 was $883.0 million.
To address the budget shortfall that resulted from this incident, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved reallocating $36 million for the National Weather Service to avoid furloughing 5,000 employees. The House Appropriations Committee approved this in late June 2012. Many Senators and Members of Congress submitted questions to the Department of Commerce before deciding to reallocate the $36 million.
A Hearing Charter prepared by subcommittee staff notes that “Congress has typically fully funded the NWS based on the request from the Administration. Since FY 2007, Congress has exceeded the Administration’s request for NWS in all but two years.” Members of the subcommittee expressed irritation as they questioned how and why this transfer of funds occurred, particularly since a NOAA decision memo stated that “[the NWS employees that were interviewed] believe there is a ‘structural deficit’ with the NWS budget. This, along with apparent shortfalls in the NWS OAA [Office of the Assistant Administrator] account, created a motive for [the NWS employee’s] actions.” Members were also interested to learn what corrective actions are expected going forward and why there was insufficient oversight by department leaders.
Subcommittee Vice-Chair Sandy Adams (R-FL) was frustrated that money that was designated for programs like the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System and the Weather Radio Improvement Project was used to pay for near-term expenses. Adams noted that while no NWS employee “committed fraud or received personal gain through their actions,” according to the Investigative Team, these investments in future NWS capabilities were compromised.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) stated “there are well established and widely understood processes for NWS to use if top management feels that funds must be reprogrammed. At their heart, those processes involve consulting with Congress. If you move money around without any accountability, as the former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at NWS did, you are violating the Anti-Deficiency Act—a statute that sets clear limits and penalties for spending money not authorized or appropriated by Congress. The power of the purse is enshrined for Congress in the Constitution and for any senior official to ignore the law and the Constitution is a deeply troubling event.”
While Tonko and Adams echoed similar sentiments towards this funding issue, Tonko was also troubled by the failure of the DOC Inspector General’s office to investigate this matter and he felt that it was counterintuitive for the agency to investigate these allegations of misconduct.
Four witnesses appeared before the subcommittee at this hearing. Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and the NOAA Deputy Administrator provided details of the events which occurred. She emphasized that corrective actions were being taken which were designed to strengthen financial controls and increase transparency within the NWS and she also highlighted changes in the NWS supervisory structure which strengthen oversight of the Chief Financial Officer. She assured Members of Congress that “while the conduct was wrong and breached the trust between NOAA and this Congress, at no point did it compromise the performance of our core forecast and warning mission.”
DOC Inspector General Todd Zinser discussed the series of allegations by whistleblowers about potentially improper transfers of funding. He also explained the IG’s role in the investigation and provided an analysis of the joint NOAA-departmental Investigative report following NOAA’s internal inquiry. He explained the decision to conduct an efficiency review rather than an independent OIG investigation and also described the follow-up actions by the audit and investigative staff.
Following the first panel, Adams pressed the witnesses about how they could be sure that future forecasting will not be impacted by these transfers of funding. She also inquired as to why the IG office did not assume responsibility of this investigation. Witnesses responded that across the government, managers are catering to short-term budget issues that they are balancing against longer term issues in light of the current fiscal climate. As to her second point, had there been any personal financial gain by any individual who transferred funding, the IG would have stepped in.
Tonko asked whether the panelists agreed that the old review system was inadequate and whether there has been any risk assessment done to look into what other financial issues may have been missed under the old system; he requested that the Committee receive a copy of the conclusions of the risk assessment. He also pressed for more information about the senior management within the CFO office and who may have been aware of this mismanagement.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) inquired about any Anti-Deficiency Act violations that may have taken place. Whereas Sullivan did state that she is not conversant with the procedural details of the investigations into this matter, she believed that “there is an affirmative preliminary determination.”
William Gail, Chief Technology Officer of the Global Weather Corporation and Member of the Committee on the Assessment of the NWS Modernization program described three recommendations for the NWS in his testimony. The first is that the NWS should “refocus on its core capabilities, these include creating foundational data sets, performing essential functions such as forecasting warnings, and conducting operationally-related research.” His second suggestion was to update the function and structure of the NWS and the third recommendation was to address the need to better address and improve the relationship between the weather service and the rest of the enterprise. He noted that better weather information “can be a growth engine for the economy” because variability in US economic output “due to weather related supply and demand inefficiencies is more than three percent of the [gross domestic product]” and in some cases he noted that it is over ten percent.
Richard Hirn, General Counsel and Legislative Director of the NWS Employees Organization stated that the existence of the NWS budget shortfall should have come to no surprise to Members of Congress since it is well documented and in public knowledge. He provided data on the budget gaps and funding for personnel at local forecasting offices.