Senators question whether family of Trump’s NOAA nominee would profit off his new position

Decisions as agency administrator could benefit for-profit weather forecasting company.

Evan Myers, right, will continue to own a stake in AccuWeather if his brother, Barry Lee Myers, is confirmed to head NOAA. CREDIT: Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Evan Myers, right, will continue to own a stake in AccuWeather if his brother, Barry Lee Myers, is confirmed to head NOAA. CREDIT: Photo/Carolyn Kaster

If confirmed, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Barry Lee Myers, pledged to separate himself from AccuWeather, a company where Myers has worked as chief executive since 2007.

At his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Myers said he will sell his ownership interests in AccuWeather and any related companies. He even pledged not to talk about his work at NOAA with his brothers — both of whom own large shares of AccuWeather — at Thanksgiving and other holidays. Myers’ brother Joel founded the company and another brother, Evan, works as chief operating officer.

Democrats on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee expressed skepticism that Myers would be able to avoid conflicts of interest with the family-owned business, given how AccuWeather has seen itself as a private-sector competitor to NOAA.

“With your family connections at AccuWeather, there remains lingering concern about potential conflicts of interest,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the committee, said in his opening statement. “How can we be sure that you will not have a conflict of interest with a company owned by your brothers, previously run by you?”

AccuWeather officials have long complained that NOAA’s work has hurt for-profit companies by offering forecast services that they contend belong in the private domain. Based on his past positions, experts worry that Myers may get rid of some functions of the National Weather Service, which could then give AccuWeather and other private weather companies an opportunity to generate additional revenue by filling the void.

“If Myers is confirmed, he will be able to order the NWS to do what Congress was unwilling to do — which is to turn the Weather Service into a taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy of AccuWeather,” Richard Hirn, general counsel and legislative director for the NWS Employees Organization, the labor union for the National Weather Service, told the Washington Post.

At the hearing, Nelson expressed concern that employees of the National Weather Service, a division of NOAA, may have trouble trusting that Myers will avoid making decisions at NOAA that could affect AccuWeather’s bottom line.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) noted that even if Myers sells his interests in AccuWeather, his brothers will continue to own more than 90 percent of the company. “You can’t force your family to divest,” Schatz said.

Trump’s nomination of Myers, a lawyer, to serve as NOAA administrator broke from recent precedent of scientists leading the agency. The agency conducts and funds weather and climate research, and operates a climate data center.

In its proposed budget, the Trump administration called for slashing NOAA’s 2018 budget by 17 percent. The 2018 spending bill passed by the House of Representatives included a double-digit reduction in the agency’s overall budget. The Senate is not expected to go along with such extreme cuts for an agency that enjoys bipartisan support.

In response to questioning from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Myers broke from Trump and other top officials and said he believes humans are the primary cause of climate change. Myers said he would not condone any guidance from the Trump administration that would discourage the mention of global climate change in research and discussions by NOAA scientists.

AccuWeather relies on information compiled from NOAA’s satellites to run its website and apps as well as provide data to media outlets. It takes the statistics and temperature readings compiled by the National Weather Service and puts it into a more user-friendly format.

The company has supported efforts to limit the extent to which the National Weather Service can release information to the public. In 2005, Myers and his brother Joel, who founded the Pennsylvania-based company, gave money to then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who introduced legislation aimed at curtailing government competition with private weather services like AccuWeather.

At the time, Myers told the Palm Beach Post that Santorum’s bill would improve public safety by making the weather service devote its efforts to hurricanes, tsunamis and other dangers, rather than duplicating products already available from the private sector.

“It’s no secret that in 2005 you were behind a bill sponsored by [Santorum] that would have prohibited the weather service from offering a product or service ‘that is or could be provided by the private sector’ — a provision that would have directly benefited AccuWeather,” Nelson said.

Myers downplayed criticism of AccuWeather’s support for Santorum’s bill. The bill was introduced “half a generation ago,” he said. Myers told the senators that the weather forecasting business has changed over the past decade and that he now believes in NOAA providing free weather data that is available to all people.