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Weather Service improperly shifted government funds

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 7:45 PM EDT, Mon May 28, 2012
Veteran meteorologist Jack Hayes announced his retirement from the National Weather Service on Friday.
Veteran meteorologist Jack Hayes announced his retirement from the National Weather Service on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Steps taken at the weather service to tighten spending oversight
  • The National Weather Service head is retiring unexpectedly
  • Officials acknowledge the internal problem, but say no corruption occurred
  • Sen. Olympia Snowe says weather service money was shifted improperly

Washington (CNN) -- The director of the National Weather Service announced his sudden retirement last week after an internal investigation found the agency shifted some of its funding internally without asking Congress, according to officials familiar with the situation.

Jack Hayes, a veteran meteorologist who headed the weather service since 2007, announced his retirement Friday and will be succeeded by an acting assistant administrator Tuesday, said a statement by Jane Lubchenco, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

Lubchenco's statement Friday made no mention of the investigation that found more than $30 million had been used by the National Weather Service to pay for costs that differed from the intended budgeted funding.

All the officials involved emphasized that there was no evidence that any of the money was for personal gain.

"National Weather Service employees engaged in the reprogramming of funds without congressional notification as required," said a statement Monday by Scott Smullen, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the weather service.

"The investigation also found that no funds were used on inappropriate items, they were simply used in different categories than originally budgeted," Smullen's statement said. The investigation found no evidence of corruption or personal financial gain in these actions. "We do not believe any money was moved out of the National Weather Service."

Richard Hirn, the general counsel and legislative director for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said Monday that most of the shifted funds helped make up a shortfall between rising salaries for weather forecasters and the amount of money appropriated to pay them.

Weakened storm soaks Southeast U.S.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, called Friday for Congress to look into the matter.

According to a statement by Snowe, senior staff at the National Weather Service "have been conducting improper and potentially illegal transfers of taxpayers' money."

"While the director of the National Weather Service has stepped down, there are many more remaining questions which require answers from both National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Commerce -- and any and all individuals who bear responsibility in this misconduct must be held fully to account," her statement said.

In addition, the senator expressed concern that "the investigative report raises fundamental concerns that the core operations of the National Weather Service are underfunded" and the Department of Commerce lacks sufficient overview.

Specifically, Snowe's statement said that the chief financial officer of the National Weather Service "was misappropriating funds from his program accounts and redirecting them to 122 weather offices nationwide, which conduct critical forecasting of weather events and major storms."

"At this time, NOAA has not found any evidence that the CFO, or any other NWS employee, made personal financial gains from this misappropriation," Snowe's statement said. "According to NOAA, disciplinary action is being reviewed for individuals involved in this behavior."

The weather service chief financial officer at the time in question was Robert J. Byrd.

In announcing the retirement of Hayes, Lubchenco named Laura Furgione as acting assistant administrator of the weather service. Furgione headed the weather service Alaska region and most recently has been its deputy assistant administrator.

Lubchenco's statement praised Hayes for pursuing "a number of important advancements that have resulted and will continue to result in lives saved throughout the country."

In a memorandum to staff last week, Lubchenco said NOAA will ask Congress to reprogram $35 million in funding to address the situation.

Snowe said Congress needs to take a closer look at the matter before deciding on that request.

However, Hirn said that a failure to approve the reprogramming of the funds could force unpaid furloughs of weather forecasters across the country.

Lubchenco's memorandum listed a series of steps taken in response to recommendations by the investigation, including tightened oversight of spending, changes in management structure and steps to ensure that reports of problems receive proper attention.

In a separate issue, an audit of nine NOAA contracts released last week found they lacked sufficient supporting information or were too subjective in granting performance awards, providing "little incentive for contractors to excel."

The audit by the inspector general's office of the U.S. Department of Commerce found $43.8 million in performance awards to contractors had been granted without proper justification.

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