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HURRICANE CENTER LEADERSHIP CONFLICT WHIRLS INTO CONGRESS

Bill Proenza insists he is being punished for being a whistle-blower.

The embattled head of the National Hurricane Center told a congressional panel he was targeted for raising questions about a key weather satellite the agency had no plans to immediately replace.

And while Bill Proenza acknowledged Thursday that he had clashed with some Miami center employees over changes he made as the new boss, he insisted most employees who signed a letter faulting his management did so because they feared for their jobs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the hurricane center, has come under scrutiny from Congress and the press since Proenza revealed that the QuickScat hurricane-tracking satellite was well past its expiration date and the agency had no immediate plans to replace it.

"I dared to call attention to it, and by golly I'm going to pay the price," Proenza told a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee.

But NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, who hired Proenza to lead the center six months ago, said the decision to reassign him was based solely on an independent assessment that found widespread problems with Proenza's relationship with center staff.

He said seven of the nine hurricane specialists had expressed concerns about his leadership and knowledge, and they feared retaliation not from upper-level brass but from Proenza.

The assessment team was headed by Dr. Jim Turner, the respected deputy director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Its July 13 report, given to the committee Thursday, said Proenza's "disruptive conduct and the lack of trust between many staff and the director" threatened the center's ability "to provide accurate and timely information."

It recommended that he be reassigned "due to his failure to demonstrate leadership ... rather than due to his public statements" about QuickScat or the NOAA administration.

Committee Democrats, including Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, were sympathetic to Proenza's claims that he was being punished for speaking out, but they stopped short of saying he should be reinstated.

They also noted that he had received nothing but accolades in his former job as chief of the National Weather Service's Southern region, where he oversaw 1,000 employees.

"The public doesn't like coverups," Klein said. "The public does like it when people are straightforward and upfront ... and I appreciate Mr. Proenza bringing this up."

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of playing politics by suggesting the Bush administration was unjustly targeting a whistle-blower.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, agreed that Proenza "has to be given credit" for ringing the alarm about QuickScat, but he questioned why 23 of the center's 46 staffers had signed a letter seeking his removal if he was an effective manager.

Proenza answered that some opponents didn't like his attempts to recast research and forecasting responsibilities, "but when the (assessment) team came in, that was extraordinarily disruptive ... and it triggered a frenzy of concern for people's careers."

Lautenbacher said he'll determine what to do with Proenza in the next two weeks. Committee Democrats left open the possibility of holding a followup hearing in Miami, after hurricane season.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

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