A new report from federal watchdogs reveals that discrimination against military veterans at the Energy Department and retaliation against whistleblowers who spoke out about the practice were more widespread than previously believed and could cost taxpayers millions.
The report, released Tuesday by DOE’s inspector general, revealed that a top legal official explicitly advised human resources officials at the department’s Bonneville Power Administration on how to disadvantage veterans in its hiring practices.
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BPA then attempted to completely remove two employees from the federal service after they questioned the hiring practices.
Problems at BPA are more widespread than just those two instances, according to the IG.
"In short, there was a massive breakdown in procedures, processes, and management attentiveness at several levels of Bonneville's operation," the IG found.
The report reinforces criticism of BPA by congressional investigators, who in August held a hearing investigating similar allegations from the department’s IG.
"Today’s report offers shocking new details about the Bonneville Power Administration’s illegal hiring practices that discriminated against veterans and the agency’s culture of intimidation toward whistleblowers," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.
According to the report, a staff attorney at Bonneville "provided guidance that likely facilitated" hiring practices that disadvantaged veterans.
Federal regulations require that veterans receive preferential treatment in federal hiring.
The BPA attorney instructed officials at Bonneville’s human capital management office "to modify the announcement [of a vacant position] so that the veteran would be unlikely to qualify. … Bonneville subsequently executed the plan and, as predicted, the veteran did not qualify."
Bonneville insisted it adjusted its hiring criteria "only for expediency to reduce the candidate pool to manageable levels."
That explanation, the IG report said, "defied logic."
Additional reviews of Bonneville hiring practices by DOE and the Office of Personnel Management found that Bonneville had employed "overly restrictive qualifications to improperly eliminate qualified applicants from job consideration," the IG noted.
"Thus, the case highlighted here may reflect a more extensive problem," it warned.
DOE deputy general counsel Eric Fygi rejected allegations that the department had instructed whistleblowers not to speak with Issa or his staff about these practices in a letter to Issa before the August hearing.
"Rather, Bonneville was informed that this was a serious matter and that any external questions were to be coordinated with the appropriate headquarters offices," Fygi wrote.
However, the IG report released this week found that DOE officials "tolerated and/or failed to address what appeared to be a culture of intimidation and mistrust" at Bonneville’s human capital management office.
That finding appears to substantiate allegations by whistleblowers who told Issa that they "fear retaliation."
"These BPA employees will not speak to the committee because they are afraid of losing their jobs," Issa told the Washington Free Beacon in a statement at the time.
BPA acting administrator Elliot Mainzer called the IG’s findings in its Tuesday report "deeply troubling."
"The department and BPA are fully committed to addressing the problems with our human capital management program and providing recourse to the many individuals, including veterans, who were impacted by our flawed hiring practices," Mainzer said in a statement.
He stressed that he and BPA are committed "to a workplace free of retaliation, particularly against those who raise concerns."
The report also faulted DOE leadership, which it said did not exercise its proper oversight role and hence allowed illicit hiring practices to continue.
"More aggressive actions on the department’s part could have aided in preventing, or at least detecting, and remediating these problems at Bonneville," the IG found.
Issa vowed to continue his committee’s investigation into the matter "to ensure that veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled, and that whistleblowers are not threatened when exposing wrongdoing."