WASHINGTON – The chief operating officer for the Bonneville Power Administration, suspended for discriminatory hiring practices and allegedly seeking to punish whistleblowers, insists her agency failed to give preference to job applicants who are military veterans as a result of an innocent misreading of federal regulations.
Appearing before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee on Thursday, Anita Decker said the misstep occurred because of a failure to properly interpret a May 11, 2010, White House memorandum on the agency’s recruitment and hiring process. Once the problem was identified in May 2012, she said, the improper hiring practices were stopped.
“It’s my understanding that BPA’s hiring of veterans has been roughly comparable to other non-defense executive agencies,” she told the panel. “I have actively supported veteran personnel and was extremely proud to have received recognition for BPA and me personally for support of veterans at BPA.”
Decker and Bonneville administrator Bill Drummond were suspended on July 16 after the inspector general’s office in the Department of Energy issued a preliminary report finding numerous violations of federal hiring practices and possible retaliation against employees who objected to the practices. A full review currently is underway.
The IG report uncovered evidence indicating that the rights of applicants for federal positions at Bonneville were violated, most notably affecting those entitled to veterans’ preference. During the course of its review the IG learned that Bonneville employees who had raised questions to their management regarding violations of personnel practices may have been subjected to retaliation.
The initial inquiry determined that the allegations were credible and that management’s coercive behavior continued while the investigation was underway. The Department of Energy has assumed control of Bonneville’s hiring and promotion authority
According to the IG report, Bonneville management engaged in prohibited personnel practices in 95 of the agency’s 146 competitive recruitments — 65 percent – from November 2010 through June 2012. Those practices excluded several veterans from being selected despite laws that granted them preferred status.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight Committee, said he called the hearing as part of its role to keep governmental institutions accountable.
“We have a responsibility to the American people to understand what happened at BPA and ensure that it does not happen elsewhere,” Issa said.
Bonneville, a component of the Department of Energy, was established in 1937 as a self-funding agency that covers its approximately $4.4 billion in annual costs by marketing electric power to all or parts of eight Pacific Northwest states — Idaho, Oregon, Washington, western Montana and parts of eastern Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – covering about 300,000 square miles and borrowing from the U.S. Treasury.
The electric power is generated by 31 hydroelectric projects operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The administration also includes a nuclear plant not owned by the federal government and a handful of small non-federal power plants.
Bonneville is responsible for the sale and transmission of nearly one-third of the electric power used in the region it serves. These responsibilities are carried out by nearly 3,100 federal employees.
Gregory Friedman, inspector general at the U.S. Department of Energy, told the committee that the controversy revolves around a memorandum issued by President Obama on May 11, 2010, requiring federal agencies to increase the candidate selection pool while still complying with merit system principles including veterans’ preference.
The Office of Personnel Management delegated the competitive hiring authority to the Department of Energy, which in turn delegated the authority to Bonneville. One hiring principle Bonneville was required to follow involved the development of a “best qualified list” of applicants, which had to be finalized before the vacancy was publicly announced and couldn’t be changed once the vacancy occurred to ensure fair and equitable treatment.
“Our preliminary findings validated the department’s conclusion that Bonneville had engaged in potential prohibited personnel practices by adjusting quality category definitions after vacancy announcements were closed and applications were reviewed,” Friedman said. “We noted that Bonneville employees responsible for rating and ranking applicants relied on informal, undocumented procedures in this regard. Bonneville claimed that its goal was to present selection officials with ‘manageable’ applicant pools.”
As a result, he said, “veterans and other applicants were inappropriately excluded from consideration for job selection.”
Friedman acknowledged that Bonneville management reportedly changed the improper practices in May 2012, as Decker said, but that the agency failed to notify those who were adversely affected.
Decker told the committee “we made a regrettable mistake” regarding veterans’ applications, but added, “we stopped making the mistake over a year ago and I want be part of making this right.”
Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary in the Department of Energy, testified that the agency is “strongly committed to a workplace where all workers are free to speak out, voice concerns or lodge complaints” and warned Bonneville executives not to retaliate against any employees who may have raised concerns regarding questionable personnel practices.
“For this reason we were seriously concerned when we learned, after the fact, that BPA had issued a notification of proposed removal against a potential whistleblower,” Poneman said. “DOE then took swift and decisive action” by demanding that Bonneville halt removal proceedings. Ultimately, the department learned of planned retaliation against three whistleblowers.
Decker advised the committee that to her knowledge no improper actions against employees were taken and that “the principles of balance between guarding against retaliation and managing performance were being followed.”
“Until the investigation, audits and any legal determinations are final, jumping to conclusions is inappropriate and may do unintended damage to effective and efficient government and public servants,” she said.
Issa said DOE’s decision to reverse the alleged retaliatory personnel actions represents “a positive step,” but added “it should never have been necessary in the first place.”
“Let me be perfectly clear — retaliation against whistleblowers is illegal and I will not stand for it,” Issa said. “We want the truth and the American people deserve the truth.”