Cantwell: Top-to-Bottom Mismanagement of NOAA Home Porting Decision, Millions of Taxpayer Dollars Could be Wasted

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said the U.S. Commerce Department Inspector General (IG) has concluded that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mismanaged the process to select a new home port for its Pacific fleet of ships. The finding was conveyed in a letter Cantwell released today from Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser. The investigation by Zinser was requested by Cantwell, who chairs the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), the subcommittee’s top Republican. The investigation highlighted NOAA’s failure to consider existing federally owned properties in the Seattle area before deciding to move its Pacific research fleet home port to Newport, OR, after being based in Puget Sound for decades.


In his letter to Cantwell and Snowe, Zinser stated, “Based on our review, we are unable to provide assurance that NOAA’s award of the lease to the Port of Newport provided the most cost-effective solution for Marine Operations Center – Pacific (MOC-P), or more generally for the government.”


Zinser’s letter was accompanied by a 15-page report detailing the results of his inquiry.


“Today’s Inspector General report supports my contention that Newport, Oregon is not an appropriate homeport for NOAA ships because it is not the best value for taxpayers,” Senator Maria Cantwell said. “I am deeply concerned by what the IG report reveals about this entire acquisitions process. As the Inspector General indicates, the process was deeply flawed from the beginning and failed to follow important policies and procedures put in place to protect the American taxpayer. Until I can look my constituents in the eye and tell them that Newport is the most cost-effective solution and that every viable option was seriously considered, I cannot support this move.”


The IG probe found that NOAA failed to consider sites in Puget Sound. The detailed report accompanying the letter says that the region under consideration initially for the NOAA home port did not even include Newport.


 “NOAA did not adequately, in our view, consider federal facilities, such as use of federally owned space at NOAA’s Western Regional Center or space available at the Federal Center South, leading us to conclude that NOAA did not make every reasonable effort to utilize Government-controlled space, as required,” the IG wrote in the letter.


The IG report found flaws in the way NOAA handled the competition for the home port site selection, though it said elimination of those flaws would not have changed the outcome. The most serious problems, according to the IG, occurred before the beginning of the competition.


“In our view, the more fundamental problems pertain to NOAA’s process prior to the competitive lease process,” the IG wrote in the letter. “A primary cause of these problems is grounded in the fact that NOAA did not subject the MOC-P project to a rigorous capital investment planning and oversight process….While the Department has a clear real property policy, NOAA did not follow it. NOAA thus proceeded with requirements for its desired option of a consolidated MOC-P facility and an operating lease, based on justification and consideration of alternatives that on their face and without additional documentation were significantly lacking.”


Cantwell cautioned against reading the IG report as saying flatly that the outcome would not have changed had there not been flaws and errors in the process.


“The IG is saying there were serious flaws in NOAA’s process prior to the competition, and had those steps that NOAA is required by law and policy to follow been followed, the outcome very well may have changed,” Cantwell said. “The IG clearly states that federally owned properties in Seattle should have been seriously considered, although it does speculate as to why they were not.”


On March 5th, Cantwell and Snowe called on the IG to investigate the NOAA leasing decision. The IG is now the second independent oversight body to raise serious concerns about the acquisition. On December 2, 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sustained a protest by the Port of Bellingham against NOAA’s lease award and recommended that NOAA conduct an analysis of practicable alternatives to the Newport offer.