The entire staff of the Department of Energy's consumer office threatened to resign yesterday, charging that the office's functions are being demolished by outgoing Energy officials because of long-standing and bitter disagreement within the department.
Office of Consumer Affairs Director Tina Hobson yesturday accused departing Deputy Energy Secretary John O'Leary of ordering her superiors to cut eight of the 24 positions in her office in the 1980 budget.
Such a reduction would make it impossible for the office to function effectively, she added. "I'm just so furious with O'Leary, and his hiding behind other people. . . I will leave this job before accepting these cuts," Hobson said.
But a spokesman for O'Leary denied the charge, and said all personnel cuts "came from the Office of Management and Budget and from the congressional appropriations committees." Hobson's superior, Sam Hughes, assistant secretary for intergovernmental and institutional relations, agreed with O'Leary spokesman.
But Hobson and her staff told a different story, blaming the staff cuts on O'Leary, with whom she has had several public disagreements. She also contended that members of the House appropriations subcommittee staff were behind further cuts in her budget. The money had been ear-marked for public participation in the Doe regulatory process.
"The ultimate decision on how and where cuts are made rests with O'Leary," Hobson said. "And, frankly, our office has caused him problems."
Hobson cited several occasions when her office crossed swords with O'Leary and the department's top officials.
"We have continually questioned the energy data being given out by the department to consumers," Hobson said. "And we publicly disagreed with the DOE official statement on the impact oil price decontrol would have on poorer people. We said to the White House the impact would be greater than the department said it would be, and we were right."
Hobson also has angered top DOE officials by publicly declaring nuclear power a consumer issue and by warning the oil industry of nationalization if it continues to keep the public in the dark about the energy crisis. She has blamed the top officials of her own department for giving the public only essentially worthless information on the energy crisis
"So it really doesn't surprise me that they would try to come back at me like this," she said.
The cuts are part of an overall budget cut proposed departmentwide. Hughes claims that he must cut 42 of his 267-member staff, and that Hobson's cuts were just part of the overall plan.
But Hobson said her office has been targeted, along with all consumer-related functions in the agency. She pointed out, for example, that consumer officials in 10 regional offices -- although not on her budget -- also will be eliminated under present budget plans for 1980.
She said her office has become unpopular because it represents the consumer interest at DOE, a department that she says that hasn't had much in the way of good news for consumers.
She said that eliminating eight positions in her office "would so damage our credibility with our constituency that my entire staff would rather resign our posts and work elsewhere in the government."
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), a member of the Senate Energy Committee, said he was "concerned that the consumer office is threatened."
"This office has struck its neck out for the consumer to the point of being a profile in courage," he said. "For an employe to be as willing to go as far as Tina Hubson has for the consumer is a magnificent display of public service."
Metzenbaum said he already had contacted incoming DOE Secretary Charles W. Duncan Jr. to see what could be done to save the OCA. "I've urged Duncan by telling him that it would be a great signal to his-concerns about consumers if he would reverse this decision," Metzenbaum said.
A spokesman for Duncan said he hasn't become involved in the budget matter yet, but that he would look into many of those matters, including this issue, "as fast as he can."
"Personnel actions are not irreversible," the spokesman said.