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Can Trump’s Pick To Lead The Weather Service Really Be Independent Of His Family Business?

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Barry Myers, President Trump’s nominee to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has faced questions throughout his nomination process about conflicts of interest related to his family’s weather-forecasting business, AccuWeather. Myers, whose nomination now needs Senate approval, has said he would step away and sell his shares and options if he got the NOAA job.

But that might not be enough to eliminate conflicts of interest between Myers’s work at NOAA and AccuWeather — which depends on NOAA data to run its forecasts — because of the close ties between the company and his family. Indeed, Myers’s ties are a good example of how difficult it can be to untangle conflicts for wealthy people moving from the private sector into government (of which there have been many in the Trump administration). That’s particularly true for family businesses. According to publicly available information, 11 members of Barry Myers’s extended family are either currently or were previously employed by AccuWeather. Another leads multiple companies that appear to have done business with AccuWeather, and two others are executives in a different company that has close ties to AccuWeather.

Myers has been a controversial nominee from the start, opposed by Obama and Clinton-era NOAA administrators and by the union of the National Weather Service. There has been a general concern about Myers’s connections to AccuWeather, a private company that could benefit from insider information available to Myers at NOAA and from decisions he could make as the organization’s leader.

For example, critics have pointed to Myers’s work lobbying for a 2005 Senate bill that some interpreted as blocking the National Weather Service from issuing non-emergency forecasts and offering easily downloadable weather data to the public. AccuWeather’s forecasts are based, in part, on that data, and critics saw the bill as providing an opportunity for AccuWeather to take publicly funded data and re-sell it to the public while eliminating the ability for the public to get that data in other ways.

Conflicts of interest are especially difficult to manage in a family business, said Josh Baron, a co-founder of BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisors, who has written about family businesses for the Harvard Business Review. “People in a family business — it’s very much connected to their lives,” Baron said. “It’s what they talk about over the dinner table. It’s difficult to draw the hard line between a business and a family conversation.”

Although Myers has publicly stated that he’s willing to sell his shares and options in AccuWeather if he is confirmed — a choice that Baron says represents a “major step” showing a serious commitment to avoiding conflicts of interest — the web of his family connections to the company is more extensive than reported elsewhere. These are the kinds of connections that demonstrate how difficult it can be to truly eliminate conflicts of interest in a family business, Baron said.

AccuWeather was incorporated in 1975, according to filings with the state of Pennsylvania. Today, the company’s website lists Barry Myers and his brothers Joel and Evan as chief executive officer; founder, president and chairman; and chief operating officer, respectively. On the questionnaire he filled out for the Senate commerce committee, Barry Myers said that his wife, Holly, is AccuWeather’s “director of executive projects.” Lynn Myers, Evan’s wife, listed herself as a “senior VP” of AccuWeather on a congressional campaign contribution form in 2010.

An archive of the AccuWeather website from 2007 shows that Barry Myers’s daughter Carla was at one time a “development manager” for the company. Her husband, William Smith, was described as a director and assistant chief information officer in an online database report on AccuWeather compiled by Mergent Intellect/FTSE Russell, a publisher of corporate and financial information, and last updated in June 2017.1 Bob Larson — the father of Barry Myers’s stepdaughter, Blair — gave his title as AccuWeather’s senior meteorologist in multiple news articles published this year. Tracy Mason, the wife of Barry Myers’s nephew Bradford, was listed as the company’s director of promotions in the 2001 Television and Cable Factbook.

Other family members have LinkedIn accounts that list them as previous or current employees of AccuWeather. These are Barry Myers’s young nephew Lachlan, who describes himself as an app developer for AccuWeather; Blair Larson, whose experience includes a stint working as an assistant to the “manager of executive projects”; and his niece Adrienne Mason Johnson, whose online résumé says she worked as a product marketing manager at AccuWeather in 2000.

Other family members of Barry Myers are tied to AccuWeather through its business dealings with outside companies. Daniel Myers, one of Barry Myers’s nephews, is the president of an internet connection company called GetWireless Inc., according to Pennsylvania public records. His name is also on the website and sales voicemail of a content management service provider called CityPortals. Both companies appear to have done business with AccuWeather at various times, according to Federal Communications Commission filings and trade publications. Calls to GetWireless and CityPortals were not returned.

Two other men, Blaine Clapper and John Heinz, the husbands of Barry Myers’s nieces Sharon and Erika, are listed on a company website as executives at EnergyCap, an energy management software company that has a long-term partnership through which it gets temperature data from AccuWeather, according to an article on the company’s website from September.2

I approached both the U.S. Department of Commerce — of which NOAA is a part — and AccuWeather for a list of Myers family members employed by the company and to confirm the list that I had compiled. The Commerce Department directed me to AccuWeather. AccuWeather directed me to the White House press office, which did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting confirmation of my list or an interview with Barry Myers. My research is based on a list of family members taken from the 2012 obituary of Myers’s mother, Doris.

In the hearing on his nomination before the Senate commerce committee, Myers said he had made it clear to his brothers that he could not talk about NOAA and that their family dinner conversations must not be about business. Both Baron and Paul Karofsky, a fellow with the Family Firm Institute, a professional association for consultants and advisers who work with family-owned businesses, said some families with closely held businesses do maintain strong rules about not discussing business in social settings. But scientific research has shown that conflicts of interest affect even people with the best of intentions and suggests that it is not really possible to fully compartmentalize the family’s interests and those of the nation. “Your personal interest may not be directly affected, but if it affects the interest of your family …” Baron said. “That may be better, but how much better is it really?”

Footnotes

  1. Smith also describes himself as AccuWeather’s vice president of international strategy on his LinkedIn page.

  2. My husband, Christopher Baker, is a project executive at the Weidt Group, a Minnesota-based company that offers some similar services to EnergyCap.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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