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NOAA chief cites management ‘failure’ in NWS financial scandal

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A financial scandal that has left the National Weather Service short $36 million this year resulted from a “failure of management and oversight” by top leaders and “significant deficiencies” in how the service and its parent agencies manage their finances.

The assessment Thursday by the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service, seemed only to frustrate House Republicans as they pressed for details about improper accounting methods the service used to balance its books.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill, House appropriators said they will hold off approving NOAA’s request to move $36 million from long-term projects to keep operating through September until Administrator Jane Lubchenco answers 65 more questions.

“We want to reassure the employees” that lawmakers will likely authorize the request to avoid furloughing staff members, said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who leads the panel that oversees NOAA’s budget.

But Wolf said lawmakers want to “send a message to other agencies” that moving millions of dollars between accounts without asking permission from Congress is a serious and potentially illegal abuse of authority. “It’s important to follow the law,” he said.

Senate appropriators this week gave NOAA a green light on the request, called a reprogramming.

Lubchenco said the money would be shifted out of a weather radio upgrade program into the salary account for local forecasters and other staff members.

She gave lawmakers some new details about the weather service’s longstanding practice of reallocating money without congressional approval. Three employees were involved in charging millions of dollars to a fund intended for technology improvements to pay salaries. The practice dated to 2006.

These capital programs had been overfunded and the salary account underfunded, Lubchenco said. She could not say why weather service officials went around Congress.

“I wish I knew why,” she said after the hearing.

She acknowledged that her staff has not been able to determine how much money was improperly moved around in 2010 and 2011, the period covered by an internal report conducted by NOAA and completed in May.

One employee is on paid administrative leave and the others are being disciplined, Lubchenco testified, but she did not elaborate.

Lawmakers were angry and confused over why money was moved around and why officials didn’t ask Congress for permission. Reprogramming money is common as agencies find mid-year that they have more expenses in some areas than in others.

The answers regarding the weather service may take a while to get. Lubchenco said she has hired an outside firm to review the mismanagement. Lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office and the Commerce Department’s inspector general to investigate.

Republicans also questioned why Lubchenco had not fired the officials involved in the scandal. When she testified that she can’t dismiss them without extensive due process, some lawmakers were furious.

“In the private sector, if you mismanage 4 percent of a budget, you would be fired,” said Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.).

But Democrats said that while the mismanagement was serious, it appeared to have been made with good intentions.

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