Barry Lee Myers, President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), moved one step closer to confirmation Wednesday after a Senate committee voted swiftly, with no debate, to advance his nomination.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee voted 14-12 along party lines to move Myers’ nomination forward. Should he be confirmed to lead NOAA, his role will involve oversight of the National Weather Service, a conflict of interest that has raised red flags among ethics watchdogs due to Myers’ prior role as chief executive of AccuWeather.
AccuWeather, a family-run company, relies heavily on NOAA’s weather service data for its forecasts. Under Myers’ leadership, the company argued that NOAA should reduce the amount of weather information it releases directly to the public. In essence, AccuWeather sought to restrict public access to data funded by taxpayers and instead make it available exclusively to private companies that would then use the data in products sold to the public. As a result, people would pay twice for the information, once through taxes and a second time to access it through companies.
“He’s for privatizing the weather service, which is sort of contrary to an important role the government serves, and down the road would cause all kinds of problems for the pubic. I mean, what if you had to pay to get the weather instead of just getting it?” a former NOAA employee told ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity.
Prior to Wednesday’s rushed vote, Myers’ nomination hit multiple snags. He was first nominated by Trump in October 2017. When Myers’ name was circulated as a possible contender for NOAA administrator, it wasn’t taken seriously. The idea of someone like the head of AccuWeather running NOAA had been a running joke among Democratic staffers. And then it happened.
His nomination marks only the second time in history that an individual without a scientific degree was put forward to lead NOAA; the first was attorney Richard Fink who served from 1977 to 1981. Myers has, however, said he acknowledges the reality of climate change and humans’ role in causing it, a fact several of Trump’s top nominees refuse to admit.
Myers’ original confirmation hearing took place in November 2017, while he was still the CEO of AccuWeather and held shares in the company. However, his nomination failed to gain the votes needed to advance, due largely to these conflicts of interest and the company’s past eagerness to effectively privatize the National Weather Service. Trump then re-nominated him in January 2018, but the year came and went without a Senate vote on his nomination.
Myers has now been nominated a third time to this position. And with Wednesday’s vote, the nomination has moved out of committee, leaving it up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to call a floor vote.
This is despite the fact that there has been no debate this year on Myers’ nomination, a standard practice for these types of nominations.
Ethics experts point to another glaring issue with Myers’ rushed confirmation process: after he was first nominated, AccuWeather agreed to a significant sexual harassment settlement. The conciliation agreement published by the Department of Labor stated that the company subjected women to “sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.” AccuWeather agreed to pay $290,000 to dozens of women as part of the settlement.
A new round of hearings to consider Myers’ nomination is necessary now, Walter Shaub, senior adviser at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told ThinkProgress. If for no other reason than the fact that the membership of the Senate has changed, which means some senators did not have a chance to participate in the previous hearing process. This “strips them of their constitutional role in the nomination process,” said Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
Beyond that, Myers’ potential conflicts of interest continue to loom large. While he has sold his stake in the company since he was first nominated, the amount he sold it for has raised some eyebrows. And many fear he will never be able to fully sever his ties to the company.
Myers sold his stock a few months ago for $15.9 million — a fraction of what he previously claimed it was worth. It’s not clear why it sold at a significantly lower value; perhaps the company’s valuation dropped dramatically. Some, however, have speculated that he sold his stocks at a lower rate to another shareholder who still works at AccuWeather, likely a family member; 90 percent of the company’s stock has reportedly been held by his brothers.
“There rightly has been significant concern surrounding the ability of Myers to act impartially,” Delaney Marsco, legal counsel on ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress via email.
“The opacity surrounding how he has sold his AccuWeather stock gives rise to concerns that this was a sham transaction to a close family member and that he can offer to repurchase the stock at the same price after leaving government,” Marsco said. “The issue is that he can take action during his tenure at NOAA that will benefit AccuWeather without there being a conflict of interest by the letter of the law. But in reality, there is a serious conflict.”
Because he has the option to repurchase his shares later, many ethics experts believe Myers should recuse himself entirely from dealing with NOAA’s weather-related activities, as anything done at NOAA to benefit AccuWeather could ultimately mean he will personally benefit — or at the very least, his family will.
AccuWeather declined to offer comment for this story.
“It’s a closely held company by his family, so you can’t really easily get rid of the conflict of interest; it’s not like a big corporation where you sell your stock and at least on paper you’ve gotten rid of your conflict of interest,” the former NOAA employee said.
Shaub agreed. “The government ethics program is very good at dealing with things like publicly traded stock and private equity… what comes up rarely is family-owned businesses,” he said. “The system just isn’t equipped to handle that.”
The Senate therefore needs to demand an explanation for “what appears to be a deep, deep discount” in the share price and review the underlying documents, Shaub said. Even if the Senate was able to confirm that it was a legitimate transaction, however, the fact that it’s Myers’ family company, and one that has actively taken positions on NOAA’s work, presents a major issue.
And yet, Myers and his attorney have made it clear that they will not take any actions beyond what is required by law: divesting of stock and a narrow recusal from matters where AccuWeather is an identified party. That’s not enough, according to Shaub.
“The Senate needs to insist on this broader recusal. And frankly the fact that Myers won’t agree not to take actions benefiting AccuWeather ought to sound red alarms in everybody’s mind, because why would this man be so intent in preserving his authority to take actions to help his family’s company?” he asked.
“Sometimes in life the law is imperfect and it doesn’t catch every real conflict of interest. Nobody could argue with a straight face that Barry Myers taking actions to benefit AccuWeather would not be a conflict of interest. It absolutely is a conflict of interest in the plainest sense of the word.”
The chance to ask these ethics questions, however, may have passed. “Procedurally, I think this is a big mistake… to jam someone through without a nomination hearing,” Liz Hempowicz, policy director at the Project on Government Oversight, told ThinkProgress. “To me it is wild that [committee] members wouldn’t assert their right and responsibility to ask questions of nominees.”
“I think the chance to ask questions, basically, this was it.”