Three former administrators of the agency responsible for the government’s vast weather forecasting system have serious concerns about the businessman President Trump has nominated to be its next leader, and two of them say the nominee has conflicts of interests that should disqualify him, documents and interviews show.
It is the first time in the half-century history of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, that former administrators have voiced such strong opposition, agency veterans say. The nominee, Barry Myers, is among a growing number of controversial figures Trump — who has promised to disrupt and downsize the federal government — has selected for key posts.
Myers, 74, is chief executive of AccuWeather, a private forecasting firm he and two brothers have turned into a multimedia weather and marketing powerhouse, using free data gathered by NOAA’s global network of satellites and sensors.
Myers’s earned more $900,000 last year at AccuWeather, based in State College, Pa., and his holdings in the firm are worth up to $50 million, according to financial disclosure forms and other documents filed with the Senate.
Over the past two decades, Myers has been a determined force behind efforts to persuade Congress to curb free initiatives by NOAA’s National Weather Service that overlap with services provided by AccuWeather and other private weather firms, while at the same time pressing the government to give AccuWeather expanded access to weather-related data.
He has opposed such initiatives as the expanded use of social media by the National Weather Service to spread tornado and other severe weather alerts, saying the agency should focus on core services such as data collection and modeling. Reviews by agency officials and others have found government warnings on social media can save lives by spurring people to take protective measures, documents show.
Although Myers has also received support from other former NOAA officials and weather industry executives, the criticism from the three former administrators presents a startling departure for an agency where transitions are typically uncontroversial.
The three, who served in Democratic administrations, decided to air their concerns publicly after being contacted by a Washington Post reporter.
“The many and clear conflicts of interest give me grave concerns about whether this nominee will truly serve the public’s interests,” said Kathryn Sullivan, a retired NASA astronaut and former chief scientist at NOAA who served as the agency’s administrator in the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017. “It strains credulity.”
D. James Baker, NOAA administrator for eight years in the Clinton administration, said he doubts whether Myers can eliminate the financial conflicts because the family-owned firm would still stand to benefit from decisions made by NOAA’s administrator.
“You’ve got the potential of decisions being made on the basis of money rather than what’s best for the country,” Baker, a physicist, told The Post.
Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist who served as the agency’s administrator in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, said she strongly opposes the nomination because of “his egregious conflicts of interest,” “his lack of scientific training,” and his “aggressive and sustained actions to undermine” the National Weather Service.
“In short,” she said, “I have grave concerns about the potential damage that Mr. Myers could do to jeopardize the core ability of NOAA to provide lifesaving and other vital services to Americans.”
Among Myers supporters is former administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., a retired vice admiral who ran the agency in the Bush administration for seven years. Lautenbacher has helped rally support for the Myers nomination, sending letters and making phone calls to lawmakers and former government officials, documents and interviews show.
Lautenbacher, who described himself as a friend of Myers, has been a paid member of AccuWeather’s board for most of the past decade. In an interview with The Post, he downplayed the pay, saying “I get a couple of bucks.”
Lautenbacher also is a start-up federal contractor whose firm, GeoOptics, plans to build a network of satellites to gather atmospheric and weather data. It received a small contract from NOAA last year as part of a pilot program exploring possible uses of commercial weather satellites, contracting documents show.
The firm uses the same lobbyist as AccuWeather — a weather industry lobbyist who has worked with Lautenbacher to promote Myers nomination, according to documents and interviews.
In a letter to lawmakers on GeoOptics letterhead, Lautenbacher said, “I view Barry as an ideal candidate for this assignment.” It did not disclose their business ties, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by The Post.
Myers and other AccuWeather executives declined to comment for this story. A spokeswoman referred questions to The White House.
On Nov. 29, Myers told a Senate panel he would take steps to address concerns about conflicts. In a prepared statement to the panel, he said he and his wife, an AccuWeather manager, would resign from “every company, board and organization that could be in conflict with my new role.”
“We have also agreed to sell ALL of our ownership interests — shares and options — in AccuWeather and all related companies,” he said in the statement, adding later: “If confirmed as NOAA Administrator, I pledge to carry out the wishes of Congress with vision, accountability and effective management — for the public good. I will ensure that the agency is staffed with top management and scientists and with talented, experienced and capable people.”
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is set to vote on his nomination on Wednesday.
If approved by the full Senate, Myers would become Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmospshere at the Department of Commerce, as well as administrator of NOAA, one of the government’s premier science operations.
Myers would be responsible for a $5.7 billion science operation, including a global meteorological network of satellites, radar, aircraft and buoys that collect weather data ceaselessly.
NOAA has about 12,000 employees, including nearly 6,800 scientists and engineers.
In a statement, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters defended the nomination, saying Myers has the business background needed to help the meet mandates in new legislation requiring NOAA to collaborate more closely with the private sector. The legislation, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, was passed by Congress in April.
“Myers was a strong supporter of that bill and testified in support of the legislation,” Walters said. “His experience in the private sector will be useful in carrying out those directives.”
Since its formation 55 years ago by Myers’s brother Joel, a meteorologist, AccuWeather has become one of the world’s most widespread sources of weather information.
The company estimates nearly 2 billion people worldwide view its weather reports on television, newspapers, computer, mobile phones and other smart devices. (The Washington Post is an AccuWeather customer.)
A key to the company’s business model is advertisements and other forms of marketing that accompany its weather content on digital platforms.
Myers has worked at the firm part- and full-time since 1964, working as the firm’s lawyer, digital strategist and other executive positions. As an undergraduate, he enrolled in meteorology but “was a horrible student” who was “never interested in learning,” according to a Wall Street Journal interview in 2014. He studied business at Pennsylvania State University and received a law degree from Boston University.
Myers and his brothers have been aggressive in pressing the government on weather-related programs that could impact AccuWeather’s bottom line, according to documents and interviews.
Over the past 14 years, the firm has spent more than $400,000 on lobbyists, according to disclosure forms filed in the Senate.
In 2005, Barry and Joel Myers supported legislation proposed by then-senator Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, that would have prohibited the federal government from performing services that might compete with services offered by AccuWeather, the Weather Channel and other companies. The two also contributed to Santorum and his political action committee. The legislation was not approved.
In 2007, Myers became AccuWeather’s chief executive. He expanded the firm’s presence on the web — while also stepping up his pressure to thwart government initiatives that might compete with AccuWeather services.
Myers has complained repeatedly about National Weather Service initiatives that duplicate private sector services.
In 2013, he told a congressional panel NOAA and the government Weather Service “should focus on core infrastructure (satellites, radars, remote sensing tools, data networks of sufficient density, research, modeling, warning improvement, and operational warnings).” He said the “weather industry already handles forecasts and services for business and industry and the general public.
“Many functions that were only government functions at the dawn of the development of America’s weather industry 50 years ago — such as media weather forecasting, business targeted weather forecasting, and general public weather forecasting have been subsumed by America’s weather industry,” he said. “This is a positive trend saving government expenditures and we can expect to see privatization of other remote sensing platforms such as satellites.”
Though his aggressive approach has rankled some weather industry and government officials, Myers is held in high regard by some in the private sector. In 2014, the American Meteorological Society gave him its Kenneth C. Spengler Award for “outstanding, highly principled leadership of the American weather industry.”
After his nomination in October, four former NOAA and National Weather Service officials spoke highly about him in an October letter to the Commerce committee.
“Through our experience working with Mr. Myers, we have seen a person capable of leading a large enterprise underpinned by complex science and technologies required to meet demanding mission needs,” retired Air Force brigadier generals John J. (Jack) Kelly and David L. Johnson and two others wrote in the Oct. 25 letter.
Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA scientist who now directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he believes the appointment reflects a lack of concern in the Trump administration about conflicts of interests.
“As a civil servant or political appointee, your sole purpose is to promote the public interest,” he said.