Panel to continue probe of hurricane center chief's ouster

A House committee will continue to investigate the ouster of the head of the National Hurricane Center despite a decision this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to return him to a previous job.

"The committee likely isn't done with this," a House Science Committee spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Bill Proenza was removed in July six months after taking a job as director of the National Hurricane Center following repeated public statements that the center's ability to predict hurricanes would decline if NOAA did not move faster to replace an aging weather satellite called QuikSCAT. Proenza questioned agency funding priorities.

Center officials have rarely questioned spending decisions in public, and Proenza's comments drew opposition from senior NOAA officials and the center's staff, almost half of whom signed a letter urging Proenza's removal. Employees said he exaggerated the satellite's value and undermined confidence in their work.

But Proenza's comments drew support from Democrats on the House Science Committee. Among them was Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson, D-Texas, who in May cited Proenza in letters pressing NOAA and NASA about plans to replace QuikSCAT.

After Proenza's ouster, Lampson and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., launched an investigation into the director's removal, seeking documents and holding two hearings. The chairmen said NOAA documents showed the agency decided to remove Proenza before it dispatched an assessment team that later recommended his ouster due to poor management.

Citing testimony that "the White House was very upset with Mr. Proenza raising concerns about the possible loss of QuikSCAT," both chairmen requested NOAA communication related to White House criticism of Proenza and documents on his hiring and removal.

After initially planning to demote Proenza to a position with less responsibility, NOAA announced Monday that he would be reassigned to head the National Weather Service's Southern region, the job he held before moving to the Miami-based Hurricane Center.

Neither NOAA nor a lawyer representing Proenza would comment on whether the reassignment was part of a deal to settle a claim that his removal violated whistleblower protection laws. But the attorney, Jessica Parks of Washington-based Kator Parks & Weiser, said Proenza had approved a NOAA press release announcing the move.

A NOAA spokesman said the assignment "reflects a desire to have a suitable outcome for everyone involved."

Lampson and Miller had also called for Proenza's reassignment to the National Weather Service job, but issued a statement after learning of his new job status saying: "The committee will continue to review the decisions that led to Proenza being pulled out of the [Hurricane] Center and will watch carefully as a search for a new leader unfolds."

The committee spokeswoman said staffers are reviewing documents requested from NOAA and may hold more hearings or take other actions depending on what they find.

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