Incompetence and Dysfunction Rampant at Energy Department

Published April 24, 2013

“Ineptocracy” is a new Internet-popularized word in wide circulation, which came to my inbox with the following definition:

“A system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers.”

Clearly the word’s creation was inspired by the current presidential administration, where the ineptocrats abound. And as NLPC has documented for 4+ years, nowhere has that been more evident than in President Obama‘s Department of Energy, under the management of soon-departing Secretary Steven Chu.

Most of those stories have documented the foolishness, misjudgment and cronyism surrounding the distribution of stimulus funds. But another area of mismanagement and incompetence has been revealed at DOE, and this time it has security implications.

Inspector General Gregory Friedman, the internal affairs watchdog for DOE, reported last week that dysfunction infects the department’s Office of Special Operations, which is tasked with the protection of the Secretary and other top officials within the branch. They are supposed to develop and implement policies and procedures for security both at headquarters and when officers are traveling, but the IG determined that simply getting along is a challenge within the division.

“During the course of our review, it became clear that morale among many members of the Special Operations staff was low and that there appeared to be a lack of trust between the agents and management,” the IG wrote in his report. “Agents told us that there was an apparent unwillingness to work together to resolve differences of professional opinion. On these and other related issues, we were also provided information by the respective parties that was inconsistent and, at times, contradictory. Positions were often irreconcilable.”

Friedman described the Executive Protection Program as a small group due to the limited number of officials in need of security. He cited numerous examples of agents who registered complaints about each other, many which he could not substantiate. But rather than appear like there’s much ado about nothing, instead the picture is one of deep animosity of employees towards one another.

The antagonism is clearly getting in the way of everyone doing their jobs, despite recent attempts by DOE’s Office of Health, Safety and Security – which oversees the security team – to address the morale and discord problems. Friedman outlined several examples in which agents: did not receive individual or collaborative training; did not know correct procedures; and were informed about performance tests on operations and procedures ahead of time when they were not supposed to be.

“The HSS evaluator administering the tests also reported to senior Special Operations officials that the agents had demonstrated competency in the tested areas, when in fact the agents had either not completed portions of the test or lacked the requisite knowledge,” the Inspector General reported.

Friedman also documented several examples in which agents did not understand policies. Out of the 16-person Executive Protection team, on vital operations that included “active shooter response,” “fire evacuation,” “direct threats,” and “medical emergencies,” only one or two agents were familiar with policies. On “security room operations,” “duress system response,” “bomb threats,” and “motorcade operations,” no more than 6 or 7 of the 16 agents had an understanding of any of the policies.

Besides the lack of information and training, the security team apparently was ill equipped as well. According to Friedman, body armor was not acquired for agents between 2007 and 2012, until an anonymous complaint was filed with the Office of Safety and Health Administration in February 2012. In response Special Operations management purchased eight non custom-fitted vests in various sizes for 13 agents, rather than custom-fitted vests that optimize “comfort and ballistic stoppage capability.” Management informed the inspector that the non-custom vests were purchased “due to the high attrition rates of agents and replacement costs for the vests.”

Incompetence in dispensing taxpayer funds is one thing, but the compromising of security due to unprofessional conduct is disturbing. Secretary Chu certainly has allowed DOE to fall into a moribund condition.

As mentioned above, the administration of DOE’s allocation of stimulus funds has been careless and wasteful. NLPC has documented billions of dollars blown on Recovery Act grants and loans, many of which the Inspector General has reported. He testified in November 2011 before a House regulatory affairs subcommittee that “the Loan Guarantee Program had not properly documented, and as such could not always readily demonstrate, how it resolved or mitigated relevant risks prior to granting loan guarantees.”

Friedman also painted a picture of a cabinet agency entirely unprepared for the flood of stimulus money it was suddenly given to distribute, and incapable of tracking it both administratively and ethically.

“To date, our Recovery Act-related investigations have resulted in over $2.3 million in monetary recoveries as well as five criminal prosecutions,” he testified at the time. “This includes a series of cases involving fictitious claims for travel per diem resulting in the recovery of $1 million alone in Recovery Act funds.”

In a hearing back in March before another House investigative committee, Friedman also told of “fraudulent claims for rebates,” “weatherization fraud to include mischarging,” and “the directing of contracts and grants to friends and family.”

Friedman has investigated numerous other DOE stimulus recipients, including electric vehicle battery maker LG Chem, which received a $151 million grant but had little for its employees to do. Reports last year told of workers on the clock playing Texas Hold ‘Em and video games, doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and volunteering at nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity – all of which Friedman confirmed. He reported that DOE “did not always take sufficient action to ensure adequate oversight of project progress” and said monitoring was so poor that – despite the obvious evidence in early 2012 of employee furloughs, construction delays and cost overruns – no red flags were raised.

And in January 2012 Friedman discovered the rush to distribute stimulus money also may have compromised national security. In an audit report of the department’s management of the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, which received $3.5 billion to modernize and improve the reliability of the U.S. power grid, the IG found that grant recipients’ plans to prevent “malicious cyber attacks” were often inadequate.

Steven Chu has been in way over his head for years, and the Obama administration should have relieved him of his duties long ago. But that doesn’t happen when you blithely run an ineptocracy.

[First Published at National Legal and Policy Center]