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Weather Service likely to dodge furloughs

Jun. 21, 2012 - 03:55PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testifies during a June 21 hearing  in Washington.
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testifies during a June 21 hearing in Washington. (Thomas Brown / Staff)

The threat of possible furloughs for National Weather Service employees appears to be averted.

“We will work to ensure that furloughs do not occur,” Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said at a Thursday hearing examining allegations of financial mismanagement at the Weather Service.

Wolf, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that sets Weather Service spending, said after the hearing he will likely approve the agency’s request to reprogram money in this year’s budget to cover shortfalls for local forecasting offices. The reprogramming request was already approved by the Senate subcommittee that oversees the agency.

Earlier this month, the agency notified employees that furloughs could occur if lawmakers do not approve a request to reprogram almost $36 million, the bulk of it for the forecasting offices. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco, who testified at the hearing, would not say afterward how many of the Weather Service’s 4,800 employees could be sent home. The Weather Service is part of NOAA.

Lawmakers delayed their approval for the reprogramming until now out of anger over the revelation that Weather Service managers moved money among different accounts in fiscal 2010 and 2011 without congressional approval.

Although an internal investigation has revealed no evidence that personal financial gain was a motive, “what happened was very wrong,” Lubchenco said at the hearing. The agency believes that only three employees were involved, one of whom is on paid administrative leave. Lubchenco did not spell out what disciplinary steps, if any, have been taken against the other two.

Lubchenco acknowledged that investigators have been unable to determine the exact amount of money improperly reprogrammed in 2010 and 2011. NOAA plans to hire a contractor to pin down that number. The agency is also beefing up oversight of the Weather Service’s finances and will train staff on appropriations law.

Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have asked the Justice Department to investigate whether criminal violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act occurred. That law bars agencies from spending money not appropriated by Congress.

At Thursday’s hearing, several subcommittee members also voiced concern that other agencies could be pulling similar budget maneuvers. “I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas.

Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, suggested a governmentwide survey to see whether improper reprogramming has occurred elsewhere.

“It’s certainly something the committee will look at in the future,” Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said afterward by phone.

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