NOAA is ‘doing everything possible’ to avoid furloughs

Officials are “doing everything possible” to avoid furloughs at the National Weather Service, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.

“Reprogramming [of funds] has to happen as soon as possible,” Janet Lubchenco told reporters after a House hearing on the internal Commerce Department investigation into the mismanagement of money within the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA. A Senate committee earlier this week approved the agency’s request to reallocate $36 million to avoid furloughing 5,000 employees this summer, and House appropriators have said they likely will follow suit.

Three government workers reprogrammed funds in fiscal 2010 and 2011 without congressional notification or proper authorization as required by law to cover budget shortfalls in other areas. Specifically, the employees transferred accounting codes of previous expenses from the agency’s budget for local warnings and forecasts (LWF) to other programs to free up money to cover spending gaps in the LWF pool, which includes labor costs. As a result, money appropriated for programs such as the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System and the Weather Radio Improvement Project was used to pay for expenses within LWF. The inspector general’s investigation did not find any evidence that the NWS employees involved committed fraud or profited personally from the action. Lubchenco said there is no reason to believe public safety was comprised by the accounting impropriety. “Nevertheless, this was very wrong,” she added.

Now, NOAA needs Congress to reallocate money to pay employees for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Lubchenco, who was told of the allegations in November 2011, expressed concern during Thursday’s hearing that senior officials at NOAA and Commerce failed to act on earlier complaints about improper activity related to the mismanagement of funds at the National Weather Service.

She also told lawmakers the agency will hire an outside firm to conduct a full-scale audit to see how far back misconduct goes, provide training on appropriations law to employees and ensure managers properly follow up on any complaints of wrongdoing.

Thursday’s hearing, held in a cramped, windowless room in the Capitol, was occasionally tense. While members from both political parties praised Lubchenco for acting swiftly to address the incident, some Republican lawmakers used the meeting to criticize the Obama administration for a lack of respect for Congress.

“This is yet the latest example of an administration that gives the middle finger to Congress,” said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala.

Then there was a lengthy discussion of firing government employees. “No one in the federal government can be held accountable,” said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. “It’s an example of a fundamental, crippling problem in the federal government,” he added, referring to the civil service rules around firing federal workers. Culberson repeatedly grilled Lubchenco on whether she asked if she could fire anyone involved in the misconduct, but the NOAA administrator was reluctant to go into details, citing privacy concerns and the due process afforded to all federal employees investigated for wrongdoing. She offered to brief members privately on the matter, and said one employee had been put on administrative leave.

“Paid or unpaid?” asked Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga.

“Paid,” Lubchenco said.

Graves and Culberson then exchanged a look, and the hearing ended.

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