Nuclear regulator broke rules, says inspector general

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

A former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission violated government ethics rules by directly contacting potential employers with business before the NRC before the end of his term in mid-2007, according to a report by the commission's inspector general.

Jeffrey S. Merrifield twice cast votes on matters involving companies he had contacted about job prospects, the report says. The firms -- the Shaw Group, Toshiba's Westinghouse Electric and General Electric -- "could potentially have benefited financially from his votes . . . during the specific timeframes in which Merrifield was negotiating with the three companies," the report concludes.

In addition, the NRC's inspector general's report says that Merrifield had called a senior executive at Exelon, a Chicago-based utility, and asked the executive to call companies that were not returning phone calls to Merrifield's attorney, who was trying to negotiate jobs on Merrifield's behalf.

Merrifield, who served on the NRC from 1998 to 2007, is now a senior vice president of the Shaw Group, a construction firm that provides services to most nuclear reactor projects.

"My job search had no impact on any decision I made as a Commissioner of the NRC," Merrifield said in an e-mail Wednesday. "Subject to the guidance I received from attorneys from the NRC Office of the General Counsel and my own personal staff, I sought to comply with all regulations and laws applicable to government employees seeking work in the private sector." He said he was proud of his 18 1/2 "faithful years" of working for the federal government.

One of the two votes in question in the report involved approval of a plan by Shaw to cooperate with China on a Westinghouse Electric nuclear reactor model. The other was to approve a change in the criteria for emergency cooling systems, which could also affect work done by Shaw.

The inspector general's report says it had "determined that Merrifield did not take effective measures to prevent a potential conflict of interest during the last 2 months of his term." It added that even though Merrifield arranged for a close friend and lawyer to pursue jobs on his behalf, "Merrifield stopped following this arrangement prior to the end of his term and began negotiating directly with potential employers."

Merrifield also failed to report $3,552.47 of reimbursed travel expenses for him and his family, most of which he received after accepting a job with Shaw but just prior to the end of his term at the end of June 2007, the report says.

The inspector general's investigation was undertaken in response to allegations by the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group. Its executive director, Danielle Brian, sent a letter Wednesday to NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko asking him to bar Merrifield from communicating with the NRC for the maximum time allowable and to refer the case to the Justice Department for civil action.

Brian said that the NRC should show that officials "will be held accountable for violating their public responsibility and potentially misusing their public post for private gain."

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