Department of Energy Billed Taxpayers $138,000 for Engineer’s Law Degree

Supervisors improperly approved expenses, employee quit after school ended

The Department of Energy building / Getty Images
• July 13, 2017 2:27 pm


The Department of Energy improperly paid for an engineer to go to law school, billing taxpayers $138,000 for a degree that allowed the employee to quit working for the government.

The inspector general for the department released an audit Monday that found supervisors improperly approved the expense for courses at American University, even though they had nothing to do with the employee's job duties at the Office of Fossil Energy.

"We found that from 2009 through 2013, Fossil Energy paid for 29 college courses, totaling approximately $138,000, for a general engineer to obtain a law degree," the inspector general said. "This employee enrolled in three to four law-related courses a semester at the American University in Washington, DC. Based on our review, we concluded that a majority of the courses taken by the employee were unrelated to his position at the Department."

The inspector general added that the engineer quit soon after completing his subsidized education.

"This employee left the Department for work in the private sector shortly after receiving his law degree in May 2013," the inspector general said. "Additionally, we found that Fossil Energy had not considered the use of a continued service agreement for this employee despite the fact that he had taken extensive training at considerable cost to the Department."

Department rules require employees to sign a contract to continue to work with the government if they have received more than 180 hours of paid training. The engineer took 1,000 hours worth of courses in pursuing a law degree.

The engineer worked in the Office of Fossil Energy, which is responsible for oil and gas research and development, and management of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Courses taken by the engineer included Pre-Trial Civil Litigation, Evidence, Criminal Law, and Torts, the inspector general said.

The inspector general conducted the audit after a whistleblower reported the department improperly paid for an employee’s college degree that was "unrelated to his current position."

While substantiating the allegation, the inspector general also found that senior officials within the Fossil Energy office intervened to make sure the engineer's law school expenses were approved.

These officials also no longer work for the government.

"We found that although Fossil Energy had sufficient review/approval policies and procedures in place, in this instance, these controls were overridden by senior management officials in the approval chain at the time, including the Chief Operating Officer and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary," the inspector general said. "Specifically, training approval officials told us that when they questioned the applicability of the law-degree courses for a general engineer, senior management officials verbally directed them to approve the training requests."

The inspector general said numerous reviewers questioned the appropriateness of paying for the engineer's law degree, but "no documentation existed to explain why senior management officials directed training officials to approve the courses."

"Further, we were unable to interview these management officials because they had left the agency," the inspector general said.