By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Energy Department Secretary spends five hours being grilled by
two House subcommittees about DOE’s contract for media analysis sp.
WHETHER IT WAS an attempt to get to the root of what Republicans called “unnecessary, wasteful, reckless efforts at self-promotion,” or a “witch hunt,” as Democrats described it, Energy Department Secretary Hazel R. O’Leary was in the hot seat.
For five hours, two House Commerce Committee subcommittees (Energy and Power, and Oversight and Investigations) grilled O’Leary about the department’s $46,500 contract for media analysis from Carma International (E&P, Nov. 18, p. 18).
Committee chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) fired the opening salvo, calling the department “a bureaucracy so bloated, so wasteful, so arrogant that it would spend tens of thousands of dollars to rank its critics.”
Democratic committee members tended to support O’Leary, including Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.), who charged there was “a taint of pure politics here,” and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who called the proceeding a “witch hunt” and charged Republicans with “looking for a reason to embarrass” O’Leary and the president.
Other Democrats questioned whether it was appropriate to focus on this issue when the government was in the fourth day of a massive shutdown.
The committee provided reporters with reams of documentation, including a memo showing that O’Leary had been told “unfavorable” reporters were being contacted by press office staff; e-mail messages from the public affairs office asking staffers for media analysis, at the behest of the secretary; and statements of work in Carma contracts that specifically show the company is known for its favorable/unfavorable ranking system.
O’Leary told the committee members that she was unaware of any media ranking being conducted by the press office or in the Carma reports, which she said were not useful.
O’Leary recalled seeing two of the reports, but not the listings. She noted, however, that at least one was presented to her in a 600-page briefing book.
“I paid too little attention to it,” O’Leary said of the Carma report, “and the Wall Street Journal paid too much.”
Despite its apparent lack of useful information, the Carma contract was twice renewed, which the Energy secretary explained was due to an effort to improve its methodology. After seven reports, the contract expired at the end of August and it was not renewed.
“It was never our intention to get a ranking of reporters,” O’Leary said, adding, “Our intention was different from what we got.”
O’Leary said she finds an enemies list or top-10 list to be “reprehensible” and called the Carma report “unsophisticated and poorly done.”
Despite her lack of knowledge about the project, O’Leary took full responsibility for what happened.
“Whatever the specific details,” she said in her prepared testimony, “I own what happened. I am embarrassed by what has happened.
“Most importantly, I regret how much ground has been lost in our effort to fundamentally improve the level of public trust and confidence in the department,” she added.
The idea of developing a media analysis was first floated in December 1993, O’Leary explained, with the goal of determining whether the department was communicating effectively.
By August 1994, the public affairs office had developed a plan for news analysis that included rating news reports as “favorable,” “unfavorable,” and “neutral.”
O’Leary explained that the definitions related to the department and its performance, not the reporter, article or sources.
Conducting this survey in-house, however, would have cost the Energy Department approximately $170,000 ? $110,000 to develop the software and $60,000 for someone to run it. This led to the hiring of Carma International, which could do the job for less, O’Leary said.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), pointed out that the White House ordered O’Leary to reimburse the $46,500 to the Treasury from her office account, suggesting that the expenditure was a misuse of federal funds.
O’Leary countered that it was “not a wise use of funds,” but stopped short of characterizing it as misuse.
When Stearns suggested she personally reimburse the government for the expense, O’Leary said she would not and noted that after three years of working for the federal government, “I wish I had the bank account to contemplate [that option] but I do not.”
O’Leary also was hit for the number of public affairs staffers working for the Energy Department ? reportedly 126 full-time and 401 contract employees at various sites around the country.
Considering that the work the DoE does is “dangerous, complex and costly” and that it is spread over 100 sites, O’Leary said the numbers were not excessive, although they will be lower in fiscal 1996.
O’Leary also denied that she hired a personal media consultant, explaining that she does not like public attention.
“Anyone who thought I sought it personally, instead of for the department, doesn’t know me,” she said.
?(Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary testifies during a House Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing.) [Photo & Caption]