It’s been a couple of months since a hullabaloo over allegedly illegal money moves at the National Weather Service briefly left several thousand employees at risk of unpaid furloughs.
But various inquiries into the affair are still under way, and a recently obtained copy of the original investigative report offers some intriguing details not previously disclosed.
For many years, for example, senior leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have viewed the weather service’s business operations model as “unsustainable” because a high level of labor costs eats into management flexibility, according to a heavily redacted copy of the 61-page report received by Federal Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
As a result, NOAA officials barred the weather service from creating any new positions, “so they must find ways to move forward with the same number of employees or less,” the report said.
In an email last week, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen disputed that a freeze was ever in effect, but acknowledged that the “weather service was challenged to find more efficient ways to perform functions.”
NOAA, a branch of the Commerce Department, is now striving to make the weather service more “stable, flexible and resilient,” Smullen added, with several studies already completed or under way. While NOAA is eager to engage employees and other stakeholders, he said, “we are not pre-judging how to get there.”
The internal investigation was completed this spring by a NOAA team in response to anonymous complaints of financial shenanigans. For anyone in need of a reminder, the inquiry found that the Weather Service finance officials reprogrammed millions of dollars among various accounts without congressional approval in 2010 and 2011, and possibly before that. While the exact amount involved is unclear, the report suggested that it could be in the neighborhood at at least $22 million. The weather service’s former chief financial officer, Robert Byrd, has retired, Smullen said.
No evidence surfaced that personal financial gain was a factor; instead, the unauthorized transfers seemed geared to shoring up funding for local forecasting offices. Needless to say, however, that money had to come from somewhere.
One target was the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, or AWIPS, the high-tech centerpiece of the weather service’s forecasting efforts, which was maintained by Raytheon under a contract worth about $14.4 million per year. In 2011, about $5.5 million was taken from AWIPS, the bulk of it from the Raytheon contract. Such moves “clearly brought significant risk to the AWIPS program,” the investigators concluded. Although it was not their job to decide whether there was actual damage to the program, the weather service “will need to make this determination in the future,” the report said. A Raytheon spokesman declined comment this week.
After NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco publicly summarized the investigation’s findings in May, the agency sought congressional approval to legally reprogram almost $36 million. Although peeved lawmakers eventually OK’d the request, it was only after the Commerce Department had notified some 4,800 weather service employees that they could be furloughed if the money didn’t come through.