AP: Weather Service Storm Detector Faulty
Saturday December 27, 2003 11:16 PM
By LARRY MARGASAK
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The National Weather Service bought and installed defective equipment designed to keep power flowing to storm-detecting radar, then quietly replaced the problem system by paying the same contractor for replacements, government documents show.
An internal investigation has concluded Weather Service officials ``seriously mishandled'' the contract by paying for the failed units, rather than forcing the contractor to cover the costs as a government lawyer had repeatedly urged.
The probe also found officials bought the second set of equipment without considering competitive bidding, and made no mention of the decision to pay for defective equipment in official records, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
"How easy it was for a handful of people to violate established public policy for contracting,'' said Robert Curtis, the Weather Service contracting specialist for the original contract and the settlement. During that process, Curtis complained to a top official that the settlement he was ordered to write would improperly pay the contractor for the defective equipment.
Curtis then was fired; the reasons for his dismissal are in litigation.
Curtis said several government officials, who agreed to pay for the failed equipment, decided to ``go off and do their own thing without anyone understanding what was going on, in a major program that impacted national safety.'' The payments went to the prime contractor, Powerware Corp., of Raleigh, N.C.
Powerware officials declined comment.
Officials at the Weather Service said they have no indication that the radar ever failed during a critical storm because of the problems.
They said they paid Powerware because they believed the technical specifications they originally wrote were to blame for the equipment failures, not the contractor's workmanship.
Asked why the decision to pay and the added costs to taxpayers weren't disclosed in the contract paperwork, a senior Weather Service contracting officer who worked on the dispute said he didn't review the settlement closely enough.
The contracting official, John O. Thompson, blamed Curtis - the whistleblower - for negotiating the deal. Curtis denied ever agreeing to pay for defective equipment, and documents show he had already complained to superiors about irregularities before Thompson completed documents explaining the negotiations.
"I wasn't aware of how he had handled it,'' Thompson said, explaining why his documents didn't mention paying for defective equipment. ``I didn't go through the file in enough detail to find the information that apparently was buried there.''
The "transitional power source'' equipment was supposed to ensure uninterrupted power to more than 150 advanced, next-generation radar sites that provide crucial warnings of severe weather, especially developing thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Without this system, the radar can lose critical data during power interruptions. The Weather Service shut down the faulty equipment in May 2000, two years after the first units were installed. By that time, the faulty units were at 94 sites.
The government replaced the system with units with older technology but which had performed well. Those, too, were bought from Powerware Corp.
Officials also can't agree on the government's extra cost from the failures.
The inspector general of the Weather Service's parent, the Commerce Department, said the amount was $4.5 million but the fired specialist, Curtis, alleges it was $18.5 million.
``We found that NWS (National Weather Service) did indeed pay for defective equipment,'' the inspector general reported in September.
``We also found that once the ... units began to fail,'' the contracting officials ``seriously mishandled the acquisition/management process,'' the inspector general found.
Documents obtained by AP show the Commerce Department lawyer providing legal advice on the contract, Mark Langstein, repeatedly wrote in internal bulletins that the contractor should be held responsible for the cost of the defective equipment.
``We are in a potential claim situation'' against Powerware, he wrote Dec. 18, 1999. On Sept. 23, 2000, Langstein said Powerware was ``bent on passing along almost all increased costs resulting from its non-compliance to the government.''
However, less than two weeks after his last warning on Nov. 18, 2000, Langstein said, he changed his mind and approved the deal. He said the government's performance standards for the equipment couldn't be met.
But unlike his written warnings, no record can be found of Langstein's approval. Asked whether he provided written consent, Langstein answered, ``I believe I did, but I can't locate it.''
Curtis, the whistleblower, took his complaints to a high-ranking Commerce Department financial officer alleging the arrangement was fraudulent.
The official, Stewart Remer, told him to contact the inspector general, who reports on fraud, waste and abuse.
Remer said in an interview he also notified a second senior Commerce official. But that official, Helen Hurcombe, head of the division that handles Weather Service contracts, said in an interview she does not recall receiving a complaint of impropriety at that time.