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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 12/18/2008

Ex-Bush Official Lautenbacher Joins AccuWeather

By Andrew Freedman

* Full Forecast | Weekend Winter Weather Cancel? *

Former NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher Jr.

The Bush administration's longtime point person on weather and ocean issues, Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., has joined the board of directors at AccuWeather Inc., one of the most prominent players in the private weather forecasting sector. The move is noteworthy in part because it comes three years after AccuWeather caused a storm of its own when it became associated with congressional legislation that may have privatized much of the National Weather Service, the organization Lautenbacher oversaw as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Keep reading for more on AccuWeather's eye-opening addition...

In an interview with Capital Weather Gang last week, AccuWeather CEO Barry Lee Myers said Lautenbacher will have a variety of duties on the company's board, and will be "potentially more active" than board members tend to be at other companies.

"The admiral's experience, certainly on a worldwide scale, is especially relevant at this particular time," Myers said, pointing to efforts to improve worldwide weather and climate data gathering and information sharing. While in government, Lautenbacher spearheaded development of a global environmental data gathering system, whose moniker as the "Global Earth Observation System of Systems," or GEOSS, is a mouthful even among Washington's acronym-heavy standards.

While the board appointment has not stirred up any allegations of impropriety, the combative history between the Weather Service and AccuWeather is leading some to question the move. "At least it should raise questions in people's minds, and it does in mine," said Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), who serves as the chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. "You wonder whether there is any quid pro quo."

The main controversy between AccuWeather and the Weather Service stems from a 2005 Senate bill, which was introduced by then-Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, that would have clarified the roles of the federal weather agency and the many private weather forecasting firms in a way that could have limited the government's ability to issue routine forecasts and other products to the public at no additional cost.

When Santorum's bill was introduced, commercial weather vendors said they were seeking only to ensure that the Weather Service did not expand their role in a way that would encroach on their businesses, but critics such as the National Weather Service Employees Union saw the bill as an attempt to prohibit the taxpayer-funded agency from doing anything more than gathering data.

AccuWeather, which is based in State College, Pennsylvania, and whose co-founder and former CEO donated to Santorum's ultimately unsuccessful reelection campaign two days before the bill was introduced, was widely viewed as the driving force behind the legislation, which never made it to the Senate floor.

Myers denied that AccuWeather was a key player on the Santorum bill. "I don't think we were any more connected to that than we were to any other issues floating around. Certainly being from Pennsylvania there was a natural connection made," he said.

Lautenbacher acknowledged friction in the past relationship, but said it resulted from communications issues between the government and the private sector. "There is a huge need to put aside any ideas for competition that could be to the detriment of providing value for society." Speaking as a private citizen, Lautenbacher said he doesn't think the past tensions are an issue now.

"I don't think there is an issue from the government's side at this point," he said.

However, Lampson, who has played a key role in oversight of Lautenbacher's former agency, said Lautenbacher was known among his staff as being supportive of privatization.

Lampson opposes privatizing the Weather Service, arguing that introducing a profit motive into the dissemination of life-saving information would be to the detriment of public safety. "Anything to me that dramatically takes away from the ability of the public agency to do the job very, very well I think is the wrong way to go," Lampson said.

Lampson, who leaves office just after the New Year following his reelection defeat in November, is among several candidates being mentioned as the next potential leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President-elect Obama.

Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the board appointment should be seen in the larger context of the public/private sector relationship on weather services. "It is true that AccuWeather has a history of conflict with the NWS, so perhaps this represents an effort on their part to be a little bit more astute in their inside the beltway dealings," Pielke said.

"There will always be tensions between the Weather Service and the private sector. It is a complex relationship that has them always overlapping and closely related."

By Andrew Freedman  | December 18, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman, Government, Media, News & Notes  
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But where is Crazy Jim Kosek going? He said goodbye today on his weathercast. I'll miss him talking to the Groundhog puppet.

Posted by: phanieb | December 18, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Anything that undermines the public good while benefitting a big campaign donor is A-okay with this Administration. We've seen it time and again now.

Why don't we just privatize everything, like the neocons dream of doing? Put your local police force under the charge of whatever corporation wants to buy it. Then they can protect only whoever pays them protection money, just like in the good old days of the 1920s. Make the FDA a private entity to while we're at it. Big companies can simply pay them to say that their food and drugs are safe. Millions will die, but... hey, it's the free market! The free market is always right. We saw how well that worked in the mortgage industry and on Wall Street in recent years. Let's copy that model and sell off our whole society to some corporate interest.

Privatize everything, sell your soul even! Put a corporate logo on your very humanity. Become a Republican. Nothing is sacred to you, so you are ready!

Posted by: B2O2 | December 18, 2008 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I have never, ever supported privatizing the National Weather Service!
Conrad Lautenbacher

Posted by: cclsel | December 18, 2008 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like Rep. Nick Lampson is not telling the truth. Andrew, did you try to check your sources before publishing that allegation or give the good Admiral a chance to respond?

Posted by: RMVA | December 18, 2008 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Don't worry....Crazy Jim Kosek is going no where...He will still be doing videos on talking with the puppet and all of the other nutty stuff. He just will not be doing the Washington D.C. video regularly any more as a new style of video is introduced. I am sure he will still be doing some videos for nearby cites so you will be able to check him out. Ken, Director of Forecasting.

Posted by: kenwr | December 18, 2008 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Marine biologist Jane Lubchenco is rumored to be the new Administrator.

Posted by: CapitalClmate | December 18, 2008 6:20 PM | Report abuse

RMVA: I included Rep. Lampson's comments, which contrast with Adm. Lautenbacher's views of his new role with AccuWeather. In my conversations with other experts I was not given any reason to suspect that the Congressman was lying, as you alleged. I'm not sure what you're getting at...

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 18, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Getting at that it looks like a smear job on a good man. Proper reporting would be to ask Adm. Lautenbacher to respond to Rep. Lampson in the piece as opposed to making him post it on this blog.

Posted by: RMVA | December 19, 2008 7:52 AM | Report abuse

RMVA: I disagree with your accusation that this piece was a "smear job on a good man." The interview with Adm. Lautenbacher covered a wide range of issues involved with his board appointment at AccuWeather, including the tension between NOAA and AccuWeather over the Santorum bill, which centered on privatization. I had absolutely no reason to suspect that Rep. Lampson was "lying," as you indicated in an earlier comment. I did have reason to believe that he and Adm. Lautenbacher disagreed about the Admiral's position on privatization, and I think it is clear from the piece that they do. Perhaps the piece could have been clearer about their disagreement.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 19, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman,

I agree with RMVA. Your column casts Admiral Lautenbacher in a negative manner. You chose to print the accusation from Senator Lampson, "You wonder whether there is any quid pro quo." and the unnamed sources claiming that the Admiral was in favor of privatization. Many people believe that the responsible thing to do would be to offer the Admiral an opportunity to respond to the Senator's allegation. Try putting yourself in the Admiral's shoes. If you were he, wouldn't you want people to at least ask for your side of the story before printing allegations from members of the opposing political party?

So I have two simple questions -
1. Did you personally interview the Admiral?
2. Did you tell the Admiral what the Senator had said and offer the Admiral an opportunity to respond?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 19, 2008 1:24 PM | Report abuse

It was not my intention to portray Adm. Lautenbacher in a negative light, as two commenters have said. Instead, the article was focused on discussing the issues raised by his joining of AccuWeather's board, which related to AccuWeather's past conduct. Congressman Lampson's comment went unchallenged, which may have been a mistake, but there was nothing in the article other than that quote to indicate that Adm. Lautenbacher did in fact support privatization.

In my interview with Adm. Lautenbacher and AccuWeather staff, we discussed the flap over the Santorum bill, which was a dispute regarding privatization. I judged those comments to be sufficient in responding to Lampson's views, but this may have been mistaken. However, allegations that I conducted a smear job on the Admiral are unfounded, in my view, especially considering the balance of views represented in the piece.

Admiral Lautenbacher has commented here on this thread, and if he wishes to detail his views further, he is of course most welcome to.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 19, 2008 5:56 PM | Report abuse


Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 19, 2008 7:19 PM | Report abuse

A reminder: Posts that resort to name-calling will be unpublished (and one just was). You are welcome to express your views, but please do so respectfully.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | December 20, 2008 10:55 AM | Report abuse

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