Leadership Report at Hurricane Center Unleashes Its Own Squall

Bill Proenza was placed on leave from his job as director of the National Hurricane Center.
Bill Proenza was placed on leave from his job as director of the National Hurricane Center. (By Wilfredo Lee -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Barr
Thursday, August 9, 2007

The clouds hanging over the National Hurricane Center may be there for a long time.

The center was hit with bureaucratic thunderstorms in July, when Bill Proenza, the center's director for only six months, was sent home on leave. He had talked openly about budget priorities and a possible satellite gap in the hurricane-detection system, drawing the wrath of his bosses. He also lost staff support along the way, and 23 employees called for his ouster.

Now, Proenza's lawyers are objecting to a report on his tenure prepared at the direction of Proenza's superiors in Washington. Two House members, who chair science subcommittees, are suggesting that Proenza was not treated fairly and want more information about his case.

At issue are the findings of a management team dispatched to the Miami center by Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the hurricane center and the National Weather Service. The team faulted Proenza's leadership and recommended that he be reassigned.

The report described a series of events, including a secret conference call in which hurricane center employees told Washington superiors that they were scared of Proenza, lacked confidence in his knowledge of the hurricane program and questioned his integrity.

Proenza's attorneys at Kator, Parks & Weiser in the District have sent a rebuttal to Lautenbacher, contending that the NOAA has engaged in "unlawful retaliatory actions" against Proenza, and that his statements about spending priorities and the need to replace an aging satellite are protected under whistle-blower laws.

"The report is inaccurate and does not provide any supporting documentation for the conclusions stated," attorneys Jessica L. Parks and Cathy A. Harris wrote. They said they think hurricane center employees "were intimidated by NOAA management officials into speaking adversely about Mr. Proenza."

The letter points out that Proenza, a weather service career employee who was named manager of the year in 1998 by a weather service union, was not told that the NOAA team was coming to investigate and was not given an opportunity to respond to complaints made by the hurricane center staff.

The lawyers noted, "Many of the report's recommendations for future improvements were the very recommendations Mr. Proenza made."

Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) and Nick Lampson (D-Tex.), who chair House Science and Technology subcommittees, wrote Lautenbacher, saying they think his team "lacked either the time or the inclination to obtain a full set of facts before drawing the conclusions it did." The paper was released recently by the subcommittees.

Documents provided the subcommittees show that Proenza's superiors planned a "drastic demotion" before the NOAA team had been named, the House members wrote.

An NOAA paper, labeled "administratively confidential and predecisional," discussed reassigning Proenza to become the chief of the training division for a weather service office in Silver Spring.

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