Trump’s Pick to Lead Weather Agency Spent 30 Years Fighting It

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In 2005 a representative of AccuWeather, the commercial forecasting company, visited the office of then-U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. It might have been Joel Myers, AccuWeather’s founder, or his brother Barry Lee Myers, the company’s general counsel. Santorum can’t remember, even though they look nothing alike: Joel is thin, with wavy black hair and Clark Kent glasses; Barry, stocky with thinning brown hair, is the sharper dresser. Still, neither brother would have been a stranger. AccuWeather Inc. is based in State College, Pa., and Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, had known the two for years through politics and Penn State University’s alumni network. “If you’re a Penn Stater, you know Joel and Barry Myers,” Santorum says.

What Santorum does recall about the meeting is that his visitor had a gripe about the National Weather Service. The NWS was giving away forecasts on its website, radio stations, and elsewhere, when businesses such as AccuWeather charged its clients for theirs—never mind that AccuWeather relied on the service’s free data to formulate its own predictions. Santorum agreed that commercial weather companies deserved protection. That year he introduced a bill calling for the NWS to issue forecasts via “data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers.” Critics said the NWS would have been barred from making any public predictions beyond severe storm warnings, which private forecasters didn’t want to be responsible for. Bob Ryan, a veteran TV meteorologist, says, “A lot of people were very concerned. They said, ‘AccuWeather wants to take over the weather service.’ ” The legislation died in committee.

Santorum and AccuWeather downplay what the bill’s effects would have been, but it’s the boldest attempt by the Myers family in a three-decade quest to undercut the scope of the service’s mission. The NWS is the best-known branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has toys that anyone in the private sector would envy: 18 satellites, some of which gather data on things like cloud formations and lightning strikes; low-flying planes that calculate the amount of water trapped in snow to predict the chances of havoc-wreaking spring floods; and, in extreme cases, three “hurricane hunter” planes to fly into storms and take measurements. Twice daily, the agency releases weather balloons that chart wind speed, air pressure, and temperature.

In all, NOAA collects 20 terabytes of data a day; NWS computers spit out a free, global forecast every six hours. Fishermen and other sailors rely on it to determine if it’s safe to go out to sea. Natural gas traders check it because millions of dollars are at stake if the weather changes suddenly. Commercial forecasters such as AccuWeather use it to provide specially tailored analyses for home-improvement stores.

After the bill’s collapse, Barry, now AccuWeather’s chief executive officer, took a more conciliatory approach, proselytizing about the need for all parties involved in forecasting—the government, academics, businesses—to collaborate. Yet he remains a champion of limiting the agency’s public role, opposing its use of social media to spread warnings. “We fear that he wants to turn the weather service into a taxpayer-funded subsidiary of AccuWeather,” says Richard Hirn, attorney for the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

Myers may soon be in a position to do that. In October 2017, President Trump nominated him to be NOAA’s administrator. In December the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which oversees the NWS, approved him on a party-line vote. “If confirmed, I think he will serve as an outstanding administrator,” Senator Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, said when he introduced Myers at his November confirmation hearing.

Adversaries say that in the grand tradition of Trump administration members blurring the line between personal interests and public ones, Myers will use the position to enrich AccuWeather while muzzling an agency that people rely on to make life-or-death decisions. And unlike Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who merely has close ties to companies he regulates, Myers co-owns one that could directly benefit from his policies. “He has a track record of working to undermine NOAA’s ability to keep people safe,” says former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who served under President Obama. “And he has egregious and unreconcilable conflicts of interest due to his family business.”

Barry Myers, 74, grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a former union shop steward at a local RCA Corp. factory. When he was 19, his father committed suicide, and the family was evicted from its home. “We survived with the help of government surplus food,” he said during his hearing.

Myers and his two brothers went to Penn State. Joel, who’s four years older than Barry, went on to get a Ph.D. in meteorology at the school and founded the company that became AccuWeather in 1962 while still there. After getting his undergraduate degree in business and later a law degree from Boston University, Barry became AccuWeather’s general counsel in the late 1970s. A former AccuWeather executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Barry was responsible for policies such as suing workers who left before their employment contracts expired. (AccuWeather wouldn’t comment on this.) Evan, the youngest brother, joined the company in 1968, rising to chief operating officer in 1997. (The brothers declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Using NWS data, AccuWeather created forecasts for climate-sensitive clients such as ski slope operators. It factored in the amount of moisture in the air, which could determine if snow would be powdery or slushy. The company also pioneered the business of crafting local forecasts for newspapers, repackaging government data with stylish graphics, and provided spiffed-up material to radio and TV stations, too.

Today the business contracts with 700 newspapers, 900 radio stations, and 100 TV stations. (Bloomberg LP is a client.) A private company, it doesn’t disclose profits. No one knows what the commercial weather industry is worth—even the American Meteorological Society lacks reliable stats. A 2008 study by an NWS-sponsored program valued the industry at $5 billion. Barry, in a 2016 interview with Bloomberg News, said, “Five billion is severely underdone.”

From the get-go, AccuWeather went after the NWS, promising clients that its forecasts were more accurate. The service has to publicize all likely outcomes of a storm’s path, but AccuWeather has the luxury of offering laserlike projections for private clients. The claim of superiority is “part of their business model,” says Edward Johnson, a former NWS policy director. “It annoyed the forecasters at the weather service.” The way Myers saw the competition, “it was like the Post Office and Federal Express”—AccuWeather was FedEx—“except that it would be like the Post Office offering to carry every letter without postage,” he recalled in 2013 congressional testimony on improving NOAA’s forecasting.

Myers began a lobbying campaign to corral his nemesis. In 1990 he helped found the Commercial Weather Services Association. The Weather Channel, AccuWeather’s main competitor, didn’t join. “We had a good relationship” with NOAA and the NWS, says Raymond Ban, a former Weather Channel executive vice president.

Jeff Wimmer, CEO of FleetWeather and another of the association’s founders, remembers prowling the halls of Congress with Barry looking for ears to bend about their issues with the NWS. “We’d say, ‘Hi, we are from the private weather industry,’ ” he remembers. “The senators and their staffs would say, ‘The what?’ ” He says he and Myers explained that the NWS was threatening private companies by giving away forecasts for nothing.

The message resonated in Washington, where Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution stormed into power in 1994. The next year, Representative Dick Chrysler, a Michigan Republican, proposed doing away with not only the weather service but also the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a part. Chrysler said he didn’t need the NWS when he could turn on the Weather Channel—not realizing, apparently, that the network got its weather data from the service.

Joel told a Senate committee looking at NOAA’s privatization opportunities in 1997 that it didn’t need to jettison the NWS. But he said the U.S. could save money if the agency focused on its “core mission,” which included climate observation and generating computerized forecasts. It should leave the dissemination to companies such as AccuWeather, he added, which would provide predictions to clients at a “very modest cost” and to the public via newspaper or cable subscriptions. Rhonda Seaton, an AccuWeather spokeswoman, says that today, the vast majority of the public gets its weather not directly from the government, but instead from companies like AccuWeather, which has an ad-supported website and mobile app. If you don’t want to see an ad on the app, you can make a one-time payment of $3.99.

Barry tried to rally the industry around a bill that critics feared would handcuff the NWS. At a 2004 AMS panel discussion, he said, “When some say I advocate laws to govern and control the National Weather Service, they are right.” A year later the Santorum bill was introduced. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said it would force the NWS back to the “pre-internet era.” Meanwhile, the Record, a New Jersey newspaper, detailed $13,740 that AccuWeather workers had given to Santorum and the Republican Party in the three most recent congressional elections, along with $60,000 the company spent on Washington lobbying. Bryan Gulley, a Nelson spokesman, says the senator persuaded colleagues on the Commerce Committee to kill the bill. Santorum and Seaton deny that he did the company’s bidding in exchange for contributions. “It was not an AccuWeather-inspired bill,” says Seaton.

Trump’s Pick to Lead Weather Agency Spent 30 Years Fighting It

After the measure failed, AccuWeather started trolling the NWS, says Gulley. He says it began using nationalweatherservice.org, which directed visitors not to the NWS, but to the company’s products and services. Even though the NWS complained, Gulley says the site remained active until last fall. “It’s deceitful,” says Hirn, the attorney for the NWS union. “A guy who comes up with that should not be running a federal agency.” Myers recently told the Commerce Committee that he had nothing to do with the site’s creation, which he says predates the Santorum bill, and that he did his best to respond to the NWS’s requests to deactivate it.

In 2007, Barry succeeded Joel as AccuWeather CEO. (Joel stayed on as chairman.) Under Barry’s leadership, AccuWeather became more of a media company, with a larger presence online and on smartphones. Its app is the world’s third-most downloaded one for weather, according to App Annie, a company that tracks the market. He introduced products such as 45- and 90-day weather forecasts, which many in the profession find laughable.

Barry also launched an AccuWeather cable network on Verizon FiOS to compete with the Weather Channel. The companies had never gotten along. AccuWeather accused the Weather Channel of degrading the meteorological profession when it started naming winter storms. Now their rivalry took on a sharper edge: The Weather Channel mocked AccuWeather’s network for missing a tornado in Oklahoma because it was airing a segment on a baby hippo. Seaton calls the knock “misleading.”

In 2008, AccuWeather named Conrad Lautenbacher, a recently departed NOAA administrator appointed by President George W. Bush, to its board. Myers was soon appointed to a NOAA working group that gave him a role in shaping policy. He helped fashion one in 2012 that restricted the organization’s ability to develop mobile apps for the public. “Barry was very helpful in drafting that,” says Johnson, the former NWS policy director. While Myers discouraged expansion into smartphones at the NWS, he promoted it at AccuWeather. Several years later he negotiated a deal between the company and a subsidiary of the China Meteorological Administration to put forecasts on smartphones. According to AccuWeather, its predictions can be accessed on 2 billion mobile devices worldwide.

At an AMS meeting in 2013, when an NWS employee spoke enthusiastically about how the service used social media to alert people during Hurricane Sandy, Myers was less excited. He complained that the NWS was enriching Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. by sharing information on their platforms—“government contracting without going through the contracting process,” he called it. At another society gathering, says a former Obama appointee to NOAA who declined to be named, Myers protested that fog forecasts for the nation’s 175 major ports—intended to prevent collisions involving large commercial ships—were yet another example of providing a service that the private sector should be doing instead. AccuWeather disputes this account.

After Trump’s win, NOAA employees worried about the damage that the president-elect, who famously dismissed climate change as a hoax, might do to the agency. At a post-election gathering, says the Obama appointee, a colleague joked that Trump might put someone such as Myers in charge. Everybody laughed. “We were like, never in a million years!” says the appointee. They were mortified to discover that Myers was a candidate. It may have helped that AccuWeather spent $100,000 on Washington lobbying in 2016.

Democrats on the Commerce Committee, worried that Myers would try to reduce the role of the NWS to that of a back-end provider for AccuWeather, told the White House that he was an unacceptable choice. Trump nominated him anyway last October. Myers promised to sell his AccuWeather shares if confirmed. When committee staff members pressed him privately for details, says one who spoke on condition of anonymity, Myers told them that he planned to sell them back to the company and that AccuWeather’s board was working to value his ownership stake. (According to a document obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, Myers values his stake at just more than $57 million. AccuWeather declined to comment.) The staffer says Myers promised to give the committee details once they were available, along with names of directors, few of which are public besides Barry’s two brothers, Lautenbacher, and Joel’s son, Dan Myers. Seaton says AccuWeather won’t elaborate on who serves on its board “out of respect for the privacy of its directors.”

Myers arrived for his Nov. 29 confirmation hearing wearing a blue suit and red tie. He assured the senators that he believed human behavior caused climate change. He also vowed to sever his ties with AccuWeather. “If confirmed, I will be joining a new team,” he said, adding that his wife, Holly, AccuWeather’s director for executive projects, would also leave her post. Myers shrugged off the Santorum controversy. “People say I was trying to privatize” the NWS, he said. “My advocacy was always [for] a level playing field.” After the hearing, committee staffers again asked Myers about divesting. According to the staffer, Myers said AccuWeather hadn’t authorized him to divulge that information.

The next month, three former NOAA administrators appointed by Democrats—Lubchenco, Kathryn Sullivan, and D. James Baker—told the Washington Post that they were worried about Myers’s nomination. “Resigning and selling his shares does not alleviate the conflict of interest,” Lubchenco tells Bloomberg Businessweek. “These are family businesses.” She notes that Joel owns a hedge fund, Weather Prophets, that makes financial bets on the weather and would benefit greatly from advance notice of pending NWS announcements. (Seaton says Myers disputes that there’s a conflict of interest and describes Joel’s operation as a “family investment fund.”) Baker is concerned that AccuWeather’s deal with China could have national security implications.

The one former NOAA administrator who actively supports Myers is Lautenbacher. “It’s the right guy for the right time,” he says. Of course, Lautenbacher is paid to be on AccuWeather’s board, and he’s likely to have business before Myers if the Senate confirms him. Lautenbacher is CEO of GeoOptics Inc., a private satellite company that won a $695,000 contract in 2016 to provide data to NOAA and employs the same lobbying group, Capitol Meteorologics, as AccuWeather does.

The White House had to resubmit Myers’s nomination in January because he wasn’t confirmed in 2017. Again, the Commerce Committee approved him on party lines. Because several Democratic senators are contesting his nomination, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must schedule as many as 30 hours of debate before the full Senate can vote on him. In the interim, the Trump administration tried to reconfigure NOAA without Myers. Earlier this year the White House proposed shaving $1 billion from the agency’s $5.7 billion budget. Trump signed a $5.9 billion spending plan for NOAA instead.

If Myers is growing impatient, he’s not showing it. In January, at the AMS’s annual meeting in Austin, he strolled through the cavernous hall by himself like just another vendor—which, for now, he is. Myers headed for AccuWeather’s bright orange booth at the edge of the hall, where one of his smartly dressed meteorologists sat at a computer asking visitors where they were from and providing local forecasts. He deflected questions about the confirmation process with a simple “no news.” A Commerce Department spokesman said, “Despite not one but two favorable votes out of the Senate Commerce Committee, Barry Myers still is awaiting a floor vote on his nomination.”

Myers had more to say in early February when AccuWeather itself was in the news again. On Feb. 6 users on the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean got an early morning alert that a tsunami was headed their way. The NWS took to Twitter to say it wasn’t true—and later, without naming AccuWeather, said a test warning had been mistakenly forwarded. Myers blamed the mishap on the government, saying the warning had been mislabeled. The following day, the NWS told the Associated Press that it had looked into the matter and found the warning was properly coded after all. Myers and the NWS were—surprise—tussling again.

 

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