Nearly half of the members of a commission reviewing the Department of Energy's national laboratories have ties to those facilities.
At least four people who are part of the nine-member Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories have now received ethics waivers from department management to participate on the committee. Those waivers absolve members of conflicts of interest when it comes to their own business and financial dealings, including being paid for consulting by the labs that they're charged with overseeing.
Documents obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that some members help run the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, based in Batavia, Ill.
Ethics waivers, both dated Sept. 15, were given to Norman Augustine and Richard Meserve so they could participate on the commission, tasked with reviewing DOE's 17 national labs, which have come under scrutiny from Congress.
Both Augustine and Meserve sit on the board of directors of the University Research Association (URA). That association is one of two members of the Fermi Research Alliance (FRA), Fermilab's management and operating contractor, according to the documents.
Both commission members are not paid for their service on the URA board.
"The fact that a member may have a financial interest that may be affected is simply unavoidable in view of the work and membership of the Commission. Specifically, I find that the need for your services outweighs the potential for a conflict created by your financial interests," wrote Daniel Poneman, then DOE's deputy secretary, in the waivers.
Nevertheless, the senior department official warned Augustine and Meserve that they cannot weigh in on issues to specifically help Fermilab.
"This waiver shall apply to particular matters of general applicability affecting URA, including FRA. It does not permit you to participate in particular matters involving specific parties that will affect URA or FRA uniquely," Poneman wrote.
Michael Smallberg, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, said lawmakers "wanted disinterested, neutral advice on the labs" when they created the labs commission. A measure included in a massive spending bill that passed Congress and became law earlier this year authorized the commission and noted that none of the panel's members should be lab employees.
"When I hear that nearly half of the committee's members have ties to the labs, it makes me wonder if they're following Congress' mandate here," Smallberg said. "There will always be a cloud of doubt hanging over the conclusions of this committee."
Namrata Kolachalam, a Department of Energy spokeswoman, said there was "minimal" overlap between the members' positions and their service on the labs commission.
"The Department of Energy is committed to ensuring the integrity of its workforce and compliance with all laws governing employee ethics. The relationship between the individuals' various positions and their membership on the Commission is extremely limited in nature and has minimal, if any, overlap," Kolachalam said.
"The Department selects only highly qualified experts for such positions, and grants these waivers after careful review to ensure that the highest standards for government operations are met."
Both men, however, seem more than qualified to be part of the panel. They can boast of long careers in energy, government and science.
Augustine is a former CEO of Lockheed Martin. He has held several positions in government, including acting secretary of the Army, was chairman and principal officer of the American Red Cross, and has sat on several corporate boards.
Meserve is a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and was president of the Carnegie Institution for Science. He has also served on several legal and scientific committees.
The two are not alone among the commission members in being tied to the labs and having received waivers from DOE.
Another member, Paul Fleury, is "a compensated consultant" to Sandia National Laboratories, according to his ethics waiver. Cherry Murray, also part of the panel, is a paid consultant to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, as her waiver notes (Greenwire, Sept. 2).
"The concern is that so many people on the committee have ties to the labs that they're supposed to oversee," Smallberg said. "I have no reason to doubt the members' expertise on this issue, but Congress was pretty clear on who should and should not serve on the committee."
The labs are certainly concerned about their future as Washington has grappled with budget cuts in recent years -- leading some lab leaders to push back against lawmakers. In a report released last month, the DOE inspector general found that Sandia had violated the law by using federal contract funds to lobby for the contract extension of Sandia Corp., which runs the Sandia labs as a department contractor (Greenwire, Nov. 12).
The department has passed out waivers for other committees and offices so those advisers with outside ties can participate in government. For example, several members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board have received ethics waivers, according to records obtained by Greenwire under FOIA (Greenwire, July 29).
The labs commission is scheduled to hold its next public meeting Dec. 15. The panel is expected to issue the first part of its study in February next year.
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