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Controversial National Weather Service official fired after money transfer

Bill Proenza said fighting to ensure forecasts are as accurate as possible and speaking his mind has gotten him into trouble again. This time, he was fired as a top manager for the National Weather Service.

Proenza, 68, was ousted as National Hurricane Center director in July 2007, after he warned that a weather satellite’s demise would hurt tropical forecasts.

He was let go on Friday as director of the weather service’s southern region. The reason: the unauthorized transfer of $528,000 he says was to ensure dozens of radar systems across the southern tier of the nation are properly maintained and running “24/7.”

“My purpose was genuinely to make sure the weather service could deliver its mission,” Proenza said Tuesday. “When money is tight, we have to decide top priorities, and I can’t think of a higher priority than protection of life.”

Proenza said the $528,000 was also needed to bolster weather service staffing, which now has “triple the normal vacancy rate.” He said since he was let go, some of the funding he transferred has been approved.

The weather service, which is bracing for a potential $85 billion in spending cuts on March 1, said he violated governmental budgeting procedures since Congress must approve money transfers. They also assured they would not cut funding to forecasting or any other function if it jeopardized public safety.

“The National Weather Service products and services the public relies on were not affected and will not be disrupted by any of the ongoing actions,” said Ciaran Clayton, director of communications for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the weather service’s parent agency.

Proenza said the weather service’s southern region is “the most active severe weather area” in the nation and includes nine states, stretching from Florida to New Mexico, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He said he thinks his real impropriety was talking to the media — and making the NOAA look bad.

He was fired four days after he told The Washington Post that budget cuts were forcing him to limit radar use, possibly putting the public in danger with a big storm.

The weather service said that story had nothing to do with the end of Proenza’s 50-year career. Clayton noted that NOAA commenced an investigation into his actions in November and concluded it in January.

The weather service previously fired its director, Jack Hayes, and its chief financial officer, as they, too, were cited for making unauthorized money transfers to upgrade technology and equipment, as well as fund day-to-day operations, in the face of persistent deficits.

Proenza was named hurricane center director in January 2007, replacing Max Mayfield, who stepped down after guiding the nation through the tumultuous 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

After he was installed, Proenza pushed to have a new QuikSCAT satellite put in space because the existing one was on the verge of failure. He argued that satellite was needed to ensure tropical storm forecast accuracy.

That prompted a revolt among hurricane center forecasters, who complained Proenza was hurting their credibility and using strong arm management tactics. After only six months on the job, Proenza was transferred to his previous post as head of the weather service’s southern region, based in Fort Worth, Texas.

On Tuesday, Proenza said he has spent his entire weather service career trying to protect the public.

“I wouldn’t be at the weather service if I did anything wrong,” he said. “I take my responsibility very seriously.”

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