By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the National Weather Service has retired unexpectedly after an internal investigation found that agency employees improperly shifted millions of dollars in budget resources to weather service offices around the country.
As a result of the investigation, agency officials have now asked Congress for permission to redirect some $36 million in spending in the 2012 budget to local forecasting and equipment upgrades, Scott Smullen, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said on Tuesday.
Jack Hayes, who led the National Weather Service (NWS) for nearly five years, stepped down on Friday. In a note to staff, Hayes said the choice to leave was difficult but something he had been planning for some time.
Neither Hayes nor a statement from NOAA announcing his replacement mentioned the controversy. Laura Furgione, a weather service veteran and senior executive, will replace Hayes on an acting basis, NOAA said.
Government investigators found weather service employees had moved around millions of dollars from budgeted programs to cover expenses and shortfalls in other areas of the agency without notifying Congress, according to a memo from the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA and the weather agency.
Investigators did not specify why the money was shifted from some agency programs or why congressional approval was not sought but they concluded that there was no evidence of fraud or that anyone gained financially.
Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank wrote in a memorandum on the investigation that officials operated "outside the bounds of acceptable" financial practices and complaints from employees who challenged questionable directions were disregarded within the weather service.
The findings concluded inadequate supervision of financial staff.
Weather forecasts and warnings were never at risk, the findings said.
The weather service, part of the Commerce Department, provides national and local forecasts, including information on hurricanes and other storms.
MONEY SENT AROUND THE NATION
U.S. Senate Commerce Committee member Olympia Snowe has said in a statement that senior NWS financial management misdirected millions of dollars from certain accounts to 122 weather offices nationwide.
NOAA has asked Congress to reprogram, or redirect, the funds in the budget so they can be used for local weather warnings and forecasts as well as to upgrade a radar system used to detect storms, the memo said.
Hayes, a former U.S. Air Force colonel, had earlier worked at NOAA and helped lead the National Ocean Service's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 before leaving to head a specialized weather agency at the United Nations, according to an agency biography no longer on NOAA's website but still available elsewhere online. He returned to NOAA in 2007.
Separately, the Commerce Department Inspector General found in a report earlier this month that NOAA had paid about $43.8 million to contractors in award fees or extensions without proper justification.
Those contracts involved a range of work from flood and drought forecasting to scientific and technical data support, according to that report, dated May 18.
(Editing by Philip Barbara and Sandra Maler)