DOE:

IG questions renewables office's stimulus hiring, contracting

The Energy Department improperly hired a contract employee in its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and may have given that senior official inappropriate influence on contracting decisions, according to a recent investigation by the agency's inspector general.

The full IG report -- and the name of the official -- was not made public, but a memo to Energy Secretary Steven Chu lays out the investigation's basic findings.

DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said in an e-mail that the department is "fully committed to taking any necessary steps to ensure a fast, strong, and merit-based hiring process that follows the letter and spirit of all federal regulations."

"Earlier this year, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy undertook a range of actions to implement reforms and improvements in the federal hiring process," she said. "We are confident that these reforms will ensure these issues are addressed moving forward."

According to the memo, IG officials discovered that a contract employee was preselected for a senior position in EERE. The individual knew about the position before the general public and "actively participated in key aspects of the hiring action," including preparing the position description and interview questions.

Under the stimulus law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, EERE's budget has soared -- as has its need for qualified employees to help hand out billions of stimulus dollars for clean and renewable energy projects. Several witnesses told IG investigators that such pressure may have "led to the Program's reliance on less than optimal Federal hiring and contracting practices."

The problem apparently lies with the selecting official, who was new to working in the federal government and claimed not to know all the rules and regulations. Inspector General Gregory Friedman wrote in the memo that the case will be forwarded to the U.S. special counsel, along with concerns raised about other hires made by the same selecting official.

"Because of the significance of the Recovery Act and the relevance of the Department's hiring and contracting practices to the success of the Recovery Act's energy components, the Department should take prompt action to ensure that the issues raised in our report are thoroughly reviewed and addressed," Friedman wrote. "We have made several recommendations designed to help improve the integrity of the hiring and contractor management process."

IG officials also found evidence that the contract employee performed government functions before becoming a federal employee. A memo justifying the employee's federal appointment describes the contractor as the selection official's "deputy" who was already responsible for the unnamed program's operations.

Senior EERE management claimed that such actions were consulting services, with every decision falling to federal officials. But Friedman wrote that "the extent of the contract employee's responsibilities contributed to the perception that the complainants and witnesses had concerning inherently governmental duties."

The IG's investigation also unearthed evidence of a "disturbing practice" at DOE where EERE officials asked contractors to hire specific individuals for the department's contracts. Some contractors acquiesced.

IG officials, however, did not substantiate an allegation that the senior official improperly awarded a contract to his or her private-sector employer. However, the official was permitted to develop a statement of work that was ultimately assigned to that employer.

"This control weakness provided the opportunity for the contract employee or similarly situated employees to manipulate contract taskings to the financial benefit of their own employer," Friedman wrote. "However, we did not identify any inappropriate escalation of work in this case."

Click here to read the inspector general's memo to the Energy secretary.

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