NOAA is headed off to Newport, Ore., based on taking a long series of wrong turns, according to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Commerce. But the examination also found that the ships of NOAA's Seattle-based research fleet would have wound up heading to the Oregon Coast even if officials had done everything right.
In the cautious parlance of a document likely to be the focus of congressional hearings, Inspector General Todd Zinser lists the mistakes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made in deciding to relocate its research fleet and support staff (known as Marine Operations Center-Pacific, or MOC-P) from Seattle to Newport, Oregon.
Zinser does not assign motive for the wrong moves. But given the critical tone of the report and the chronology it offers, it leaves a suspicion that a strong presence at a high level in the agency wanted Newport from the beginning, and shaped the competitive process to assure the outcome.
The report shows that NOAA's commanding officer in Seattle, Michele Bullock, argued for keeping the ships and staff where they are, at a government-owned Duwamish riverfront property off East Marginal Way in Seattle, and the government-owned Western Regional Center on Lake Washington. Federal rules require agencies to give preference to government-owned land before leasing or buying other properties, but Bullock's civilian administrators never seriously considered that option.
The report includes an exchange of e-mails in which Bullock (identified by position, not by name) says keeping the fleet at the Federal Center South location on East Marginal "could save us and the taxpayer a lot of money." The IG's report concludes: "NOAA cannot demonstrate that there are no government-controlled facilities that meet its requirements and that it has fully complied with federal and Departmental requirements."
A few other highlights from the report:
- NOAA still does not know how much of its land-based staff will be required or willing to move from Seattle to Newport, and where the agency will find replacements for those who decline. Last winter, a number of the agency's civilian specialists of widespread concerns among their colleagues over housing, schools, and other matters NOAA called "quality of life issues in Newport. The new IG's report says "there has been no formal assessment of whether current MOC-P staff would make the move to Newport and if not, what . . . impacts might be anticipated on MOC-P's ability to fulfill its mission subsequent to the impending relocation."
- Newport was a late addition to the list of ports being considered, and no one seems to know how it got there. The original study area extended from Bellingham to Portland and Astoria. "The rationale for extending the delineated geographic area down the Oregon coast to Newport is unclear," in the IG's careful words.
- The process that weeded out Seattle, Bellingham, and Port Angeles in favor of Newport, could give the appearance that "the Government is trying to 'gear' the award decision to a specific offeror." This refers to a "new evaluation factor" added late in the game, after NOAA had done its first round of evaluation and asked the competing ports for their best and final offers. At that point NOAA added "quality of building and pier," as a factor in choosing the winner. This raises the question of "whether the competition should have been reopened for other potential offerors," the report says.
- NOAA used what the IG calls "an overly complex and convoluted rating system" in deciding where to relocate. Those who did the judging apparently "did not have all their questions answered in preparing their final evaluations," and had to make "assumptions and inferences about the proposals." In other words, they guessed a lot.
- NOAA kept the project away from its own facilities management specialists and the real property review board of the Commerce Department. Neither of the groups of experts had a chance to oversee the relocations process. Whether this violated regulations depends on how you read NOAA's policies, which the report describes as "ambiguous at best."
- Given all the evidence of a faulty process, it's too late to start over. "If the government broke the lease (with Newport) it could be responsible for damages" in the opinion of Commerce Department lawyers. Newport's already at work on the new buildings and docks. And even if NOAA had followed all the rules, it probably would have settled on Newport because of the cost. Newport got a $19.5 million subsidy from the state of Oregon, to help pay for the NOAA dock and offices. NOAA will lease the facility for $2.5 million a year. None of the Washington contenders could match the price.
The Inspector General's office produced the report at the request of Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Their Senate sub-committee oversees NOAA's budget. Cantwell has hinted that she might call Senate hearings to see if there's Senate support for holding up funds for the NOAA move.
She also took issue with the idea that the report flatly says the outcome wouldn't have changed if NOAA had followed proper procedures. "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 in a news release.
NOAA's communications officer in Washington, D.C., David Hall, did not respond to Crosscut's telephone and e-mail requests for comment. The Seattle Times quoted Hall as saying, "The proposal submitted by Newport had the lowest cost to the government, the highest technical rating and was determined to be the best overall proposal to support NOAA's operations."
Given the terms NOAA set for the competition, it appears it could not have ended any other way.