Subcommittee Questions National Weather Service on Management of Funding

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Publication date: 
6 November 2012

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.

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