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Federal Eye
Posted at 01:10 PM ET, 12/14/2011

Hearing exposes disarray at nuclear agency

Long-simmering tensions between commissioners at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission spilled into the open Wednesday as four commissioners charged the chairman with abusive, bullying and misogynistic behavior while the chairman defended his actions and said he was unaware of some allegations.

Under questioning, the NRC’s four commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — said they had doubts about the leadership of Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko and said they believed agency staffers had faced hostile or offensive conduct by him.

But Jaczko, appointed by President Obama in 2009, said he had no plans to resign and defended his tenure by frequently telling lawmakers “I am very passionate about safety.”

The hearing capped a months-long investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee into Jaczko’s leadership at the nuclear safety agency.

In his testimony, Commissioner William D. Magwood, a Democratic appointee, said Jaczko regularly grew impatient and unhappy at meetings with career agency staffers.

During one encounter, Jaczko “Became increasingly irrational and everyone in the meeting became very uncomfortable,” Magwood said, adding that staffers told him that Jaczko “sort of snapped.”

“It was like ‘The Exorcist’,” Magwood said staffers told him.

At a separate meeting in October, Magwood said Jaczko met with staffers and asked them, “Are you on my team?”

“The people I talked to felt that it was quite clear that the wrong answer could have consequence,” Magwood said.

Similarly heated exchanges between Jaczko and female staffers left the women in tears, Magwood said. But none of the women are willing to speak publicly, because Magwood said one staffer told him, “It's embarrassing enough that I went through this, I don’t want to be dragged through the mud before some congressional committee.”

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Magwood said the female staffers had shared their concerns with him in recent weeks and that at least one staffer had filed formal complaints with NRC’s inspector general.

In his testimony, Jaczko said NRC was in the midst of an “exceptionally challenging” year as the agency responded to the Japanese tsunami and meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant. He said commissioners this year have held dozens of public meetings, reviewed thousands of enforcement actions, license applications and other policy matters.

“This is the first time I’ve heard many of these accusations,” Jaczko said later “and certainly if there’s ever been a time that I’ve made someone feel uncomfortable, I certainly want to know so I can take whatever actions to remedy that.”

Seated at the center of a witness table with two commissioners on either side, Jaczko stared down at papers stacked in front of him as fellow commissioners described his behavior as unprecedented.

“All members of the commission, including me, have been on the receiving end of this conduct,” Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki, a Republican appointee, told lawmakers.

Svinicki said the commissioners initially hoped to settle disagreements out of the public spotlight, but events in the past few months “pushed the commission beyond its tolerance for current circumstances.”

During an October retreat with senior agency staffers, she said Jaczko expressed contempt for the commission and instructed the staffers to “advance his agenda and that this must come at the price of having their own, independent assessments and recommendations.”

Svinicki said the agency’s executive director described the meeting to her later by saying, “We were pretty much instructed to leave our brains at home.”

William C. Ostendorff, a Republican appointee, said he had never witnessed such poor leadership after serving in the Navy and with congressional committees. He also charged that White House Chief of Staff William Daley had mischaracterized the commissioners’ disagreements.

Contrary to Daley's assertion in a written response to the House committee that the disagreements stemmed from organizational matters, Ostendorff said the tensions are “about behavior that if exhibited by one of the NRC’s regulated licensees, would be subject to investigation and potential enforcement action for a chilled work environment.”

George Apostolakis, the panel’s third Democratic member, said he agreed with his colleagues concerns and that none of them were politically motivated. Under questioning, the four commissioners agreed that they did not think Jaczko’s behavior was politically motivated.

A former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic lawmakers, Jaczko was faulted in an inspector general report last summer for withholding information from the commissioners about the agency’s decision to stop a safety review of a proposed nuclear waste site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain — a project opposed by the Obama administration and Reid. The commissioners also charged Wednesday that Jaczko withheld information about actions he took in the hours and days after the Fukushima meltdown.

Under sharp questioning by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Jaczko denied bullying or intimidating agency staffers and ignoring the opinions of his fellow commissioners.

“I’ve listened very carefully to the concerns of my colleagues and I’m certainly very interested in continuing a dialogue with them to better understand how we are not communicating effectively,” Jaczko said.

“That doesn’t seem like any sort of repentance,” Chaffetz said.

“We’ve got people who are suffering under this gentleman right here,” Chaffetz said, pointing at Jaczko as he continued. “He is not living up to the duties. I don’t believe you. I think the safety and security of this nation is too important. I think you should resign.”

But Jaczko insisted: “I believe that many of these instances that they’re referring to are misconstrued.”

Committee Democrats acknowledged the commissioners’ significant disagreements, but said the divergent views didn’t constitute criminal behavior or the attention of Congress.

“The commissioners are going to reflect what’s happening in the industry here,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said, adding that perhaps industry groups were using commissioners to express their frustrations with Jaczko’s leadership.

But the commissioners denied the charge.

“My primary motivation in being here today is really to speak on behalf of the NRC staff who I think have very high expectations of their commission,” he told reporters after the hearing. “And I don’t think we’ve entirely lived up to that because of the issues we’ve discussed today.”

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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By  |  01:10 PM ET, 12/14/2011

Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Congress, Oversight

 
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