‘Invincible’ office manager terrorized staff — IG

By Kevin Bogardus | 09/04/2015 12:56 PM EDT

A Department of Energy office manager cursed at subordinates, tasked them with personal chores, opened their private email and sought to silence detractors.

Talk about the boss from hell.

The manager’s transgressions and many more are listed in a report by the DOE inspector general, which was obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act. The document provides much fuller detail on what happened at the department site office than the report’s summary version, which DOE released to the public last September.

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It’s not known who the manager is or where he or she worked — that information is redacted from the report. DOE determined that the public interest didn’t outweigh the privacy interests of the people involved, which "include being free from intrusions into their professional and private lives," according to the department’s response to the FOIA request.

A department spokesman didn’t offer much more information either in reply to questions from Greenwire about the manager.

"The inspector general report," said the DOE spokesman, "was based on a full investigation of an internal personnel matter conducted by the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General. The department does not comment on specific personnel matters."

Some tidbits, however, can be gleaned from the report. The manager served as the senior federal official on the site and reported to the deputy director for field operations at DOE’s Office of Science. In addition, the site office employed roughly 25 federal and contractor employees, according to the IG.

The report — signed by Gregory Friedman, DOE’s inspector general — found that the site manager violated government ethics rules after investigators substantiated several allegations made against the official.

Those charges included having site employees run the manager’s family trust; having them pick up food, coffee and groceries for the manager; using office resources for the manager’s personal tasks; and using office space to house the manager’s "extensive collection of personal financial records."

The investigation began after the IG’s hotline received an anonymous tip about the manager in October 2013.

Site office employees told investigators that "there was a great level of fear and intimidation" in the workplace and that the manager’s style "was based on fear." The manager reportedly lost his or her temper several times and "yelled and cursed at employees," according to the report.

The manager had survived an earlier DOE investigation, and that led employees to believe the manager was "invincible." Employees worried that speaking with investigators would lead to the manager retaliating against them.

Further, the IG confirmed that the manager obtained access to at least six employees’ email accounts. The manager then shared the content of those emails with other employees.

Employees were aware that their email accounts had been breached. They soon became "paranoid" and avoided using email to do their official duties, according to the IG. One employee described the manager’s breaching his or her subordinates’ email as "a form of control."

Also, contractors were often brought in to fill jobs at the site office that were once held by federal employees. This possibly gave the manager even greater control of the office.

One employee told investigators that the manager once said, "I can’t get rid of a fed as easy as I can get rid of a contractor." An IG analysis found that during a seven-year period ending in 2013, five or six contract employees hired for administrative support jobs were fired and replaced.

‘I know who the negative comments came from’

In August 2011, the manager also was able to obtain a copy of an earlier investigative report that looked into his or her conduct in the office. Key information was redacted, but still the manager’s copy of the report had the names of site employees who were interviewed during the investigation.

The manager believed he or she could determine who said what in the report, even though the quotes were unattributed.

"I have received the redacted version of the Report and although the areas of [sic] blacked out, I know who the negative comments came from because the style of communicating is something that I am quite familiar with since the same style has been used to communicate directly with me," the manager said in an email.

Site employees were alarmed that the manager had a copy of the report, with one employee telling investigators that he or she "felt that the department had let us down."

In addition, the IG found that the manager obtaining the copy of the investigative report to use against subordinates "may have compromised the integrity of the OIG complaint process."

The department watchdog also believed the office was not working effectively on behalf of DOE due to "a negative work environment tainted by threats of reprisal."

"In such an environment, it was doubtful that the Site Office was able to effectively accomplish its vital mission," according to the inspector general.

Management at DOE’s Office of Science agreed with the report’s recommendations and pledged to review its support service contracts. In addition, officials said they would put in place procedures so employees would know they’re protected when reporting workplace concerns.

‘Change’ in ’employment status’

DOE higher-ups, however, could not take further action against the manager who frightened site employees and violated ethics rules. That official has seemingly escaped punishment from management.

That’s because the manager has retired — one item not disclosed in the report’s summary version — a move that rendered him or her immune from further investigation by DOE.

The inspector general used vague terms regarding the manager’s job status in the summary report.

"Because of a change in the manager’s employment status, the Department concluded that it could not take further action with regard to determining appropriate disciplinary and administrative action to address the issues identified in our report," it said.

The manager’s employment status was fleshed out more in the longer report, which noted that the official had retired.

"Because the [redacted] Site Office Manager has retired from Federal Service, Management statement that it cannot take further action with regard to determining appropriate disciplinary and administrative action to address the issues identified in our report, or increasing the level of supervision of the [redacted] Site Office Manager," said the inspection report.

Asked why that detail was not included in the report’s summary version, the IG office said it wasn’t "relevant."

"We do not view the specific nature of the change in employment status as relevant to the findings detailed in our report," the DOE Office of Inspector General said in a statement to Greenwire.

Officials caught up in investigations by agency inspectors general often leave government service before they can be penalized for their misconduct.

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, U.S. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins complained about one official who refused to cooperate with his office and later retired (Greenwire, Feb. 3). That agency official — Peter Jutro, former acting associate administrator for the agency’s Office of Homeland Security — had exchanges, "including some of a sexual nature," from 2004 through July 2014 that 16 women as well as a 21-year-old Smithsonian Institution intern rebuffed and found objectionable (E&E Daily, May 4).

Misbehaving government officials retiring to escape action from inspectors general have frustrated lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Consequently, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved legislation earlier this year that would allow the agency watchdogs to subpoena former federal employees (Greenwire, May 19).

‘Official Use Only’

The full inspection report was marked as "OFFICIAL USE ONLY," which limited its disclosure outside DOE.

Reports given that status are meant to be seen only by DOE officials and typically cannot be shown outside the department without written approval from the inspector general.

Yet the longer report’s release can be forced by FOIA. Greenwire filed several public records requests for the report, which helped trigger its release. The document, however, is still full of redactions due to FOIA’s privacy and law enforcement exemptions.

The inspection report paints a fuller picture of what happened at the site office, clocking in at 25 pages — much more than the summary version, which had only three pages.

The DOE inspector general has also released the longer report to the public, posting a copy on its website last month.

Reporters Katherine Ling and Hannah Northey contributed.

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