- - Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Bonneville Power Administration official acknowledged Thursday that the federal hydropower agency made a “regrettable mistake” when it wrongly disqualified some veterans from hiring preferences, but she insisted that officials did not retaliate against whistleblowers who brought the situation to light.

BPA Chief Operating Officer Anita Decker’s testimony to House lawmakers conflicted with some assertions from the Energy Department’s internal watchdog, who is investigating whether the actions against veterans were intentional and has cited some evidence of retaliation against the whistleblowers.

The Washington Times first reported on the problems in July.

Ms. Decker, who was temporarily reinstated from administrative leave Sunday to prepare for the hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, acknowledged that BPA, which is based in the Pacific Northwest, failed to follow White House guidance regarding veterans hiring preferences.

“In regard to veterans, we made a regrettable mistake. We stopped making that mistake over a year ago,” she said. “I want to be a part of making this right.”

Ms. Decker maintained that she played no role in the policy or hiring decisions, however, and that whistleblower protections were not violated in personnel actions planned against BPA employees that the department halted last month.

At the time, she and Administrator Bill Drummond were placed on administrative leave and his deputy, Eliot Mainzer, was made acting administrator.

Ms. Decker acknowledged that BPA discovered the hiring problems with veterans last year and fixed the process, but had not by this summer taken actions to “reconstruct” the hiring process to accommodate the individuals affected.

The controversy was thrust into the open last month by department Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman. He issued a management alert to the department when he learned that six employees who had complained about the hiring practices were facing adverse actions, including suspension.

His alert led the department to put Ms. Decker and Mr. Drummond on leave, to suspend the agency’s hiring authority, and to order employees already on leave back to work. The BPA and the department also conducted reviews that substantiated the hiring mistakes.

Deputy Secretary Dan Poneman issued a message to BPA employees asserting that no action would be taken against employees who cooperated with Mr. Friedman or other reviews.

Ms. Decker sought to link the hiring problems to confusion about a veterans preference executive order issued by President Obama.

Mr. Friedman, who appeared at the hearing, added that Bonneville managers said they wanted to reduce the pool of finalists for a job. Under federal rules, however, they were not allowed to do so once the job was posted for applications.

The reductions had the effect of leaving some qualified applicants, including veterans, eliminated from the hiring process.

Mr. Friedman told the committee that the explanation of confusion over the order was not supported by evidence that he has turned up in his probe, which continues.

“I have no basis for disputing that, except that if a fair person would read the policy, it was crystal clear. I don’t suggest that these people were misleading us or lying to us; I would suggest the credibility in terms of that line of thinking was really in doubt,” Mr. Friedman said.

He said his inspection has not turned up facts that managers intentionally sought to disqualify veterans. He also concluded that the actions against the employees had chilled cooperation with his office by BPA employees.

Ms. Decker challenged the employee claims that they were being subjected to retaliation. She said she oversaw the actions based on managerial evaluations of employee performance and review by BPA attorneys.

“There are adverse actions at play. I would submit they are not retaliatory,” she said.

Mr. Poneman stressed that the department is committed to meeting veterans’ hiring preferences and was opposed to any actions against whistleblowers.

He was grilled by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the committee, for appearing to have told BPA senior staff not to cooperate with Mr. Issa’s staff.

Mr. Issa said Mr. Mainzer resisted speaking to his staff because of an order by Mr. Poneman that statements about the case had to be cleared through department headquarters. Mr. Poneman said he intended that advisory to apply only to statements of policy in line with the department’s rules governing external communications.

Mr. Issa told reporters that he did not call Mr. Drummond to the hearing because Ms. Decker and Mr. Poneman agreed to testify. He also said he was not implying motives to the department but was trying to understand why the hiring problems happened.

He said he and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, wanted the hearing to prompt the government to look again at veterans preference hiring and whistleblower protections. Mr. Issa also said he was able to make the point that federal employees must not be discouraged from cooperating with Congress or department inspectors.

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