House GOP alleges misconduct, intimidation at Energy Department

House GOP alleges misconduct, intimidation at Energy Department
© Greg Nash

The Obama administration withheld information from Congress and improperly fired an employee as part of a politically motivated push to end a Department of Energy (DOE) program, House Republicans say.

report Tuesday from the House Science Committee, based on an 11-month investigation, said the Obama administration wanted to shut down the DOE’s Low-Dose Radiation Research Program — which the committee has voted to save — in order to shift funds to President Obama’s climate change priorities.

In doing so, DOE officials improperly lobbied Congress against intervening to save the program and fired a scientist when her bosses thought she lobbied in support of the radiation research, committee staff concluded.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Instead of providing the type of scientific information needed by Congress to legislate effectively, senior departmental officials sought to hide information, lobbied against legislation, and retaliated against a scientist for being forthcoming,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the panel’s chairman, said in a statement.

“Moving forward, the department needs to overhaul its management practices to ensure that Congress is provided the information it requires to legislate and that federal employees and scientists who provide that information do so without fear of retribution,” he said.

The report concluded that the DOE committed a “reckless and calculated attack” on the legislative process, and the agency has an institutional “disregard for separation of powers.”

The program was launched in the 1990s to study the biological effects, including potential cancer, of exposure to low-dose radiation, such as from nuclear accidents.

The Obama administration has sought to wind it down after researchers found that no dose of radiation was small enough to eliminate the risk of cancer. At the same time, the administration has been increasing resources for programs in the same office studying alternative energy sources.

The Science Committee launched its probe earlier this year after learning that Noelle Metting, a biologist working on the radiation program, was fired.

She participated in an October 2014 briefing to Congress on the program, which the committee report said was an attempt by DOE leaders to lobby against the program and the bill to save it.

Metting told lawmakers at a September hearing that she was fired for allegedly lobbying to save the program.

“During the congressional briefing … I presented the agreed-upon material and answered accurately the many scientific questions directed to me,” she said at a hearing. “I was only answering the questions,” she added, saying she was not lobbying.

The top lawmakers from both parties in the Science Committee’s oversight panel objected to the DOE’s decision to fire Metting.

When Metting “provided honest input on the merits of the low dose program, she was subsequently fired by DOE senior management, all for the crime of working to conduct what is clearly important research, and explaining that research to congressional staff,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.).

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said it seems “that in this instance, the Department of Energy was a bit overzealous in the removal of Dr. Metting and badly mishandled this case.”

The report released Monday goes even further, accusing the DOE of “a scheme to withhold information from congressional staff” to push Obama’s climate goals.

“The committee concludes that the DOE has attempted to usurp Article I authority by restricting Congress’ access to information during the legislative process,” the report said, referring to the article of the Constitution that gives Congress its authority.

“Thereafter, the DOE took punitive action against a scientist because she was unwilling to go along with the department’s inappropriate and unlawful advocacy scheme.”

Sharlene Weatherwax, associate director of the Biological Energy Research program, defended her agency’s actions at the September hearing, saying that it was a scientific determination to shift funds away from the radiation program.

As for firing, Weatherwax said Metting was leaving out important details.

“The proposal to dismiss Dr. Metting enumerated a number of issues,” she told lawmakers. “There are a number of those issues which are not related at all to the briefing.”