House investigators will hold a hearing next week regarding allegations that top Department of Energy (DOE) officials instructed agency employees not to speak with congressional investigators about an ongoing probe into agency hiring practices.
The hearing follows a back-and-forth between DOE officials and congressional investigators, who say the agency is attempting to stonewall its efforts to investigate allegations of whistleblower retaliation.
The alleged DOE gag order was revealed in a letter from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) to Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman.
According to the letter, Poneman instructed the head of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) not to speak with Issa or other congressional investigators about an inspector general report revealing illegal hiring practices at the BPA.
Eric Fygi, DOE’s deputy general counsel, denied agency wrongdoing in a Wednesday response to Issa.
"Poneman gave no such instructions," Fygi said. "Rather, Bonneville was informed that this was a serious matter and that any external questions were to be coordinated with the appropriate Headquarters offices."
"It has always been the Department’s policy that any and all DOE employees are free to speak out, voice concerns, or lodge complaints without fear of retaliation, including with Congress," Fygi wrote.
Issa rejected that response.
"BPA employees have told committee staff—this week—that they still fear retaliation," he told the Washington Free Beacon in an emailed statement. "These BPA employees will not speak to the committee because they are afraid of losing their jobs."
Fygi told Issa that BPA employees were reminded of their right to communicate concerns with Congress "in a recent communication," but BPA employees recently told the Oversight Committee that "their ‘chain of command’ is preventing them from providing more information to the committee," Issa said.
"These conversations speak for themselves," he added.
Issa’s probe into the alleged gag order issued to BPA employees will be fleshed out in a Thursday, Aug. 1, hearing on the investigation.
According to committee staff, the hearing will be titled, "Department of Energy’s Bonneville Power Administration: Discriminating Against Veterans and Retaliating Against Whistleblowers."
The inspector general report, released last week, revealed the initial whistleblower retaliation allegations. According to the report, BPA officials who spoke out about illegal hiring practices that disadvantaged military veteran applicants were fired, suspended, or punished in other ways.
A DOE spokesman who provided the Free Beacon with Fygi’s letter did not respond to a request for additional comments.