At NOAA, there's gambling at Rick's

NOAA's recently revealed reprogramming of funds should come as a shock to no one, says Alan Balutis.

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group.

"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” says Capt. Louis Renault just as a croupier hands him a pile of money and mutters, “Your winnings, sir.”

The scene is from the film classic "Casablanca," and the words are uttered by Claude Rains as Renault as he gives the order to close down Rick’s Café, run by Humphrey Bogart. I was reminded of that notable quote as I read about the budgeting and financial improprieties at the National Weather Service. Here’s that puzzling saga in a nutshell.

Since 2006 or thereabouts, NWS — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Commerce Department — has moved $30 million or more a year from a fund intended for technology improvements to pay salaries and other operational expenses in its regional and local forecast offices. The practice continued up through 2011; the management “failure” was discovered this year. Three employees were said to be involved in this unauthorized reprogramming of appropriated funds. One employee is on paid administrative leave and the others are being disciplined, according to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

At a recent hearing before House appropriators, lawmakers were described as angry and confused over why money was moved around, why officials didn’t ask Congress for permission, why the officials involved in the scandal had not been fired, and so on.

My confusion runs deeper. How could this illegal reprogramming have gone on for so long? And how could so many people remain silent while it was taking place? The notion that only three people were involved is somewhat laughable. If that were true, then the senior managers running programs such as the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System and the Weather Radio Improvement Program didn’t notice year after year that they had $30 million less to spend than Congress had appropriated.

Nor did regional directors or service managers in NWS’ local warning and forecast offices notice that somehow shortfalls had disappeared and they had more to spend than what was in the budget. And in all the offices that track, manage and oversee such expenditures at NWS, NOAA and the Office of the Secretary of Commerce, no one noticed and not one disgruntled employee or whistle-blower reported the activity to the Office of Inspector General.

Is that what we are to believe? It is much more likely that hundreds of Commerce employees — including managers, career executives and top political appointees — knew it was going on and took no action to stop it or report it. Given an opportunity to spend money on new technologies that would enhance weather forecast accuracy and timeliness or improve productivity, the agency instead decided to maintain the status quo.

Let me borrow a term used by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh in calling for Mayor Vincent Gray’s resignation over campaign violations in the 2010 election. Cheh, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, said Gray’s situation is described in law books as “willful blindness” and asked, “How could all this go on and you don’t know?”

House appropriators have said they will hold off approving the reprogramming until NOAA officials answer more than 60 questions. The inspector general, the departmental chief financial officer and the NOAA administrator are all conducting investigations, probes and studies. They will be worth waiting for because eventually someone is going to have to turn over the rock and explain. And I’m sure he or she will be “shocked, shocked.”