- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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 repeatedly had 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, Mr. Curtis complained to a top official that the settlement he was ordered to write would improperly pay the contractor for the defective equipment. Mr. Curtis then was fired; the reasons for his dismissal are in litigation.

Mr. 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.”

The payments went to the prime contractor, Powerware Corp., of Raleigh, N.C. Powerware officials declined to 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 Mr. Curtis — the whistle-blower — for negotiating the deal. Mr. Curtis denied ever agreeing to pay for defective equipment, and documents show he had already complained to superiors about irregularities before Mr. Thompson completed documents explaining the negotiations.

“I wasn’t aware of how he had handled it,” Mr. 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 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.

“We also found that once the … units began to fail,” the contracting officials “seriously mishandled the acquisition/management process,” said a September report by the inspector general of the Commerce Department, the Weather Service’s parent agency.


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