Top officials at the Commerce Department may have threatened and intimidated their own employees to stop them from tattling to Congress about mismanagement of a $1 billion federal project.

The project is a remake of the National Weather Service to upgrade its ability to predict potentially dangerous weather conditions. The project is beset by delays and cost overruns.A congressional subcommittee chaired by Rep. James Scheuer, D-N.Y., began investigating the project but now finds itself investigating whether the Commerce Department, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, threatened employees who cooperated with Scheuer's investigators. Scheuer and Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher spelling out the allegations about intimidation. "Some of the alleged threats were of a severely menacing nature, were obviously intended to intimidate and chill further cooperation with the subcommittee and were made by department officials with the apparent authority and capability of following through with retaliatory actions," the two congressmen wrote.

Sources told our associate Scott Sleek that some who cooperated with the subcommittee were even worried that their jobs were on the line.

The subcommittee was already irked by the Commerce Department's reluctance to answer questions about the overall modernization program. Among those thought to be holding back information from Congress was Commerce Inspector General Frank DeGeorge.

The most troublesome piece of the modernization plan is also its most expensive piece - the Weather Service's radar system. The old system is antiquated, and the agency is so unhappy with the progress on a new system that it is threatening to cancel the $700 million contract with Unisys Corp. to build it. Unisys has asked for up to $250 million more because of unexpected costs, and the company says that the government isn't paying fast enough.

The Unisys-made radar has gotten mixed reviews in testing. A prototype for the system - NEXRAD, for Next-Generation Radar - performed inadequately when the Air Force tested it last year. But it fared better in a more recent test. The National Weather Service employees' union has been warning for months that the delays on the Unisys contract could leave the agency in a dangerous bind. The old equipment is so antiquated that it hampers the Weather Service's ability to forecast dangerous weather, they say.

For example, last summer the Weather Service radar was too weak to predict the magnitude of a storm that brought surprise flooding to Shadyside, Ohio.

The Weather Service introduced its modernization plan two years ago. It called for replacing old equipment, closing some Weather Service offices and eliminating 800 jobs. The idea was to replace people with more sophisticated equipment. Many of the jobs have been eliminated by attrition, but the new equipment hasn't come along to replace them. And new weather satellites have remained grounded because of design flaws. The Weather Service maintains its modernization plan is going well, except for the problem with the Unisys contract. But that's a problem with a price tag that deserves close scrutiny without interference from heavy-handed Commerce officials.

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