Watchdog: Energy Department office changed job requirements to exclude veterans

Military veterans were unfairly targeted by an Energy Department office that changed evaluations for job applications so it wouldn’t have to consider hiring certain individuals, a federal watchdog said.

Officials at the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest changed the “best qualified category” after receiving job applications, a practice that disproportionately excluded veterans, said a report by the Energy Department’s Inspector General. Veterans are supposed to receive preferential consideration when applying for a job with the U.S. government.

Inspectors said that BPA used inappropriate hiring practices for 65 percent of its hires — about 95 cases — and took “actions that resulted in the inappropriate exclusion of veterans and other applicants from consideration for selection,” the IG said.

A representative for the inspector general said the investigation focused solely on BPA, and did not analyze whether similar practices could be occurring at other sites.

But investigators also found that any Bonneville employees that reported the hiring practices or assisted federal inspectors were disciplined, possibly leading to a culture that discouraged whistleblowing. Investigators said a number of BPA workers who reported wrongdoing were fired or suspended, or threatened with being fired or suspended.

“The chilling effect of the adverse actions against Bonneville staff is clear, jeopardizing efforts to get at the truth in these matters,” the IG said.

The Energy Department has placed two officials on administrative leave while the agency looks into the accusations. The department declined to comment on personnel matters, but The Associated Press reported that BPA Administrator Bill Drummond was one of the individuals replaced.

Any disciplinary actions by BPA officials against employees have also been suspended, and the office has lost its ability to independently hire and fire people.

A representative for BPA referred all questions to the Energy Department.

“The actions outlined in this report are absolutely shameful,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican. “The question for the Department of Energy right now is, ‘Where is the accountability?’”

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to improve federal treatment of vets following the engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, but former military personnel face continuing challenges when returning from their service. The Washington Times reported last week that 21 percent of young American veterans are jobless.

Meanwhile, backlogs at the Veterans Affairs Department have led to delays in medical and other benefits promised to veterans. Last year, the Washington Guardian reported that some vets were waiting 5 to 10 hours to receive treatment in a hospital.

The Bonneville Power Administration, located in Portland, Ore., provides power to much of the Northwest, from Montana to California and Nevada to Washington. The BPA draws its power from a series of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River. About one-third of the electric power used by the Northwest comes from BPA, according to the office’s website.

The revelation brought bipartisan ire from lawmakers who oversee energy, veterans and government reform committees.

“Veterans have made a special commitment to our country, and it’s only right that the government make the same commitment to them,” said Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore.  “The veterans preference in federal hiring is non-negotiable, and retribution against whistleblowers in any way, shape or form that affects hiring veterans cannot be tolerated.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, R-Calif., said he was investigating the accusations.

“The fact that department officials may be engaged in retaliation against whistleblowers courageous enough to report improper hiring practices is, as the OIG wrote, deeply concerning, and if true, this is something this committee will not tolerate,” he said.

Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said she was “extremely concerned” by reports of BPA’s “discriminatory practices.”

“As the daughter of a World War II veteran and a champion for those who have served our nation, I know firsthand the incredible value and spirit that veterans bring to any workplace,” she said.


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