Energy Department officials prohibited subordinates from speaking with congressional investigators about their probe into illicit hiring practices and related whistleblower retaliation allegations, according to the lead investigator.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, revealed in a letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon that the deputy secretary of energy issued the gag order following a scathing inspector general report last week.
The report revealed that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a division of the Department of Energy (DOE), had violated DOE hiring guidelines in ways that disadvantaged military veterans.
BPA employees who cooperated with the IG’s investigation, the report found, were fired, suspended, or otherwise sanctioned.
Issa revealed in a Wednesday, July 17, letter that Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman "verbally instructed Elliot Mainzer, the individual [Poneman] chose to serve as acting administrator of BPA, that no BPA employees were to talk with anyone regarding these allegations, including congressional investigators."
Issa suggested that such a gag order could be illegal.
"Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime," he noted. "Additionally, denying or interfering with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law."
Transparency advocates raised similar concerns.
"Any attempt to ‘gag' employees from communicating with Congress would be a gross violation of law," said Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, in an email.
"It is highly illegal for any federal agency to attempt to prevent employees or contractors from communicating whistleblower concerns with Members of Congress or an Inspector General," Kohn said. "If true, this conduct by government officials would be intolerable."
Oversight Committee spokesman Ali Ahmad told the Oregonian that a senior BPA official had informed the committee of Poneman’s gag order.
Issa requested a response from Poneman by noon on Wednesday. The committee could not confirm whether it had received a response by press time.
"BPA employees have the right to talk with Congress and to provide Congress information free from interference by the Department of Energy," he wrote. "These employees also have a right to be free from fear of retaliation for sharing information with Congress."
A BPA spokesman referred questions to DOE’s press office, which did not respond to a request for comment.