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Senate to vote on requiring audit of NOAA

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Senate is expected to vote today on a measure that would require independent auditing of programs funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, filed the measure in response to a report in The Sun this month about spending practices in a NOAA-funded program to restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, aides said.

The Sun reported that fewer than a third of the nearly 1 billion hatchery-raised oysters planted by the Oyster Recovery Partnership since 2000 have been put in protected sanctuaries. Most have been placed where they can be harvested by watermen and sold.

Also, the nonprofit group is giving the Maryland Watermen's Association nearly $400,000 this year to move diseased oysters from one part of the bay to another, The Sun reported. Proponents say the practice helps other oysters survive, but critics say its main purpose is to provide income for watermen.

The Sun also found that the partnership spent $46,000 in federal funds on an annual dinner at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Cambridge.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership has been funded by an earmark placed in the federal budget each year by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The Maryland Democrat said yesterday that she agreed with the goals of the Coburn measure.

"NOAA should be accountable for expenditure of taxpayer dollars used to restore the Chesapeake Bay," she said through a spokeswoman.

The measure, filed in the form of an amendment to a science, technology and education investment bill, would require the inspector general of the Department of Commerce to conduct routine, independent reviews of activities funded by NOAA that would include cost-benefit analyses and a determination of whether goals are being met.

It would also prohibit funds from being used to pay for banquets and conferences, other than conferences related to training or routine meetings with NOAA officers.

Coburn, an earmark hawk, earlier had asked NOAA for a detailed explanation of how $10 million in government grants has been spent in the oyster program.

In a letter to NOAA chief Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., Coburn said he was "very concerned" about questionable spending in the program.

In a letter to The Sun, Lautenbacher said that NOAA provides adequate oversight of the federal funds provided to the partnership.

NOAA officials said an auditor is hired each year by the partnership to perform a standard financial review in order to comply with federal requirements.

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