Last week, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to evaluate Susan Beard, President Obama’s nominee for the next Department of Energy Inspector General (IG).
Ms. Beard has worked within the Energy Department’s General Counsel’s Office for over 27 years, which has some Senators questioning whether she’ll be more of a lapdog than a watchdog. In a 2008 report, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) found that the role of IG and General Counsel’s offices can come into conflict because “[a] general counsel’s role is to protect the agency, whereas an IG’s role is to audit, inspect and investigate it.”
Inspectors General cannot be effective overseers without independence from the agency they oversee. Congress and the public must be able to trust that the reports and recommendations made by the IG are objective. Past IGs have detailed their experiences with agency pressure, intimidation tactics, and attempts to diminish their role.
At the very beginning of the hearing, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) explained how important the IG role is at the Department of Energy. The IG office was created at the same time as the Department itself, and is one of the first IG shops in the federal government.
The previous Energy Inspector General, Gregory Friedman, conducted investigations into high profile topics including security breaches and whistleblower retaliation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, nuclear security guards cheating on performance tests, and contractors illegally using taxpayer dollars to lobby Congress. It’s important for IGs to stay strong and be willing to go toe-to-toe with the Department if necessary.
For Ms. Beard, this may be difficult. Chairwoman Murkowski raised the issues by questioning how Ms. Beard would be able to effectively transition from being an advocate for and advisor to the Department to scrutinizing that very same Department. Several other Senators echoed her concerns.
“If confirmed you’ll be asked to audit and investigate colleagues, people with whom you’ve worked for decades and who made decisions based upon your own advice, so I think we all have questions about whether you or anyone would be able to exercise sufficient independence and objectivity to be an effective Inspector General,” Senator Barrasso (R-WY) said.
Ms. Beard responded to these concerns by reminding the Senators that she has managed the Energy Department’s ethics program for almost two decades, which she believes has prepared her for the IG role.
“I think it’s very important in my ethics capacity as well if I was to be confirmed as Inspector General, to discover the facts, apply the law, and follow wherever they lead fearlessly and without being concerned about where they may point.”
But Ms. Beard’s independence was not the only concern. During her 27 years at the Department, her focus has been ethics and general law, a far cry from the audits, inspections, and investigations that will be required of her in the IG position.
Many of these investigations will undoubtedly involve working with whistleblowers within the Department who report concerns of waste, fraud, and abuse. This aspect of the job, and the Department’s treatment of whistleblowers in the past was a topic Senator Wyden (D-OR) was eager to discuss.
Oregon is neighbors with Washington, home of the Hanford Site, a former nuclear material production facility and now one of the biggest environmental cleanup sites in the world. Countless whistleblowers from the plant have come forward and been mistreated over the years, a fact Senator Wyden emphasized at the hearing when he stated that 4 dozen Hanford workers had complained of chemical exposure in the past 10 days alone.
“There’s such a need to change business as usual and produce some new accountability and to change the policies,” Senator Wyden stated. “What will you do to blow the whistle on the Department’s chronic mistreatment of whistleblowers?”
Ms. Beard responded by assuring the Senator she would make sure the IG office would continue to work with whistleblowers and promote a Department free of retaliation. “I think that whistleblowers play a very important role in making sure that the public is aware and the government is aware of some things, some inappropriate things that are going on.”
But Senator Wyden was less than satisfied with her answer.
“I hope in writing you’ll tell me specifically what would change, because the answer you gave me on that point was virtually identical to what I’ve heard from individuals with respect to this position year after year.”
It is POGO’s hope that Ms. Beard will be able to thoughtfully explain how she plans to address whistleblower issues at the Hanford Site and across the Department. We are pleased to see this Committee taking their oversight role so seriously and considering Ms. Beard’s nomination from every angle.
“Make no mistake, this is a big job,” the Chairwoman stated.
We’ve seen before how an agency can crumble without a strong and effective Inspector General, and if Ms. Beard is confirmed we hope she can be the kind of leader this job requires.