Energy Department officials and employees routinely seek paid internships for their children and relatives despite internal warnings against nepotism, the agency's internal watchdog reported Monday.
"Despite the department's ethics program and information regarding prohibited personnel practices, advocating for the selection of relatives appears to have become an open and widely accepted departmental practice," Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote.
The audit stemmed from a complaint about internships awarded during fiscal 2012 to three children of a senior career official in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office.
The unnamed official contacted 12 other department officials on behalf of the college-age children, including a high-level personnel officer, and two were hired in his office.
The third was hired by the Office of the Chief Information Officer after a number of calls by the official. The office had not planned to hire interns that year but reversed course before it hired the relative.
Friedman said the official believed he had not broken any rules.
The official said a human resources official had previously said there was no conflict in advocating for relatives as long as the applicant would did not report to him. The same justification was also cited by the officials who hired the relatives.
The EERE official called it a common department practice for employees to make inquiries and provide resumes on behalf of relatives seeking positions in the former Student Temporary Employment Program.
The audit turned up information that indicated other senior officials took similar actions on behalf of their relatives, Friedman said.
The watchdog also learned an employee in his own Office of Inspector General had contacted department officials on behalf of a relative, a matter he called "serious."
A department spokesman, Bill Gibbons, said the administration takes very seriously the issues raised in the report and is committed to "fair, open and transparent hiring processes that ensure every candidate is evaluated equally."
He said the department will take "appropriate actions" regarding the intern hires mentioned in the report and is giving senior employees and hiring managers additional training.
Friedman warned that actions by officials to place their relatives in the program had a likely "severe impact" on morale, the integrity of the competitive internship process and public trust in government.
He noted that competition for STEP internships was intense, with 750 applications filed that year.
The program was replaced by the administration last year with the Pathways Program, which officials told Friedman is intended to address nepotism concerns by requiring public job postings.
He remained concerned, however, that the practice of seeking positions for relatives was ingrained within the department, and urged a number of changes that department officials agreed to undertake.
Among them are additional checks by human resources personnel to verify that department employees related to job applicants have not gotten involved in the hiring process.