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Bonneville Regains Hiring Authorities

by Ted Sickinger
The Oregonian, September 30, 2014

Managers look to bring "very difficult chapter" to a close

Steve Wright is chief executive officer and administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.  BPA is a federal agency that markets wholesale electric power from 31 federal hydro projects, one nuclear plant and several other small, nonfederal power plants.  Wright is retiring in January. Almost a year after a hiring scandal prompted a federal takeover of the Bonneville Power Administration's human resources functions, the U.S. Department of Energy has reinstated the Portland-based power marketing agency's authority to hire, fire and promote staff.

BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer told employees in an e-mail Tuesday that the agency still had work to do. But he described the reinstatement as the culmination of a 13-month process "to complete the get well plan and re-establish a fully compliant, high-performing human resource function."

"This is a major major accomplishment and brings to a close a very difficult chapter for BPA," he said.

The DOE put Bonneville's management team on a short leash after the agency was engulfed in a hiring scandal last summer, suspending legal and personnel authorities that are central to the operation of the agency. The actions alarmed BPA customers and the region's congressional delegation, who feared the loss of autonomy would strip Bonneville of its ability to serve regional, versus national, interests.

BPA executives are now hoping to move beyond the hiring misdeeds and bring the public and internal conversation back to some of the pressing energy issues that Bonneville, as the region's largest utility and transmission provider, needs to focus on.

The reaction from customers on Tuesday was positive, though they remain concerned that BPA's general counsel is still reporting to DOE headquarters.

"This is a critical step," said Scott Corwin, Executive Director of the Public Power Council, which represents many of the 140 public utilities that buy low cost hydropower from Bonneville. "With the problems fixed, authority is rightly returned to the regional Administrator so that BPA can take much needed personnel actions."

The agency also still faces a skeptical internal audience and a growing stack of lawsuits that allege it has been engaging in a pattern and practice of hiring discrimination that predates the two-year window of hiring violations that was the focus of investigators and the agency's resulting remediation process.

Audits and investigations released last fall by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the DOE's Office of Inspector General found massive dysfunction within Bonneville's human resources operation. That included what federal investigators called a "widespread and pervasive practice of manipulating the candidate rating process."

The hiring violations disadvantaged both military veterans - who were denied preference rights in its recruiting - and other qualified candidates whose applications didn't make it through BPA's screening process.

Whistleblowers who brought the problems to light subsequently claimed that managers retaliated against them and that executives were aware of, tolerated and in some cases participated in the problems.

In the memo sent Tuesday to Mainzer reinstating the agency's authorities, the DOE's director of Human Capital Management, Kenneth Venuto, said BPA staff had been proactive and collaborative in solving the problems. He said human resources staff had undergone comprehensive retraining to assure they met federal standards for staffing, recruitment, placement and pay setting.

The DOE hired a new human resources director, Brian Carter, for Bonneville last November. BPA also adopted the Department of Energy's information technology platform for human resources, dumping a costly independent platform that the DOE said was problematic.

Carter's staff have documented step-by-step hiring procedures for human resources employees to follow, and two supervisors are in place as subject matter experts to provide guidance on the hiring system and policies.

BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said the agency had gone to great lengths to equip staff to "hit the ground running and fill our vacant positions quickly and by the book.

The suspension of BPA's hiring authorities left it in something of a hiring bind. The agency has some 250 vacancies among its 3,100 full time employees, though only nine are currently posted on a federal hiring site, Eight of BPA's top 23 executives are in their current positions in an acting capacity, and another two of those positions are vacant. The agency also has a multitude of employees in temporary details that are supposed to be limited to two years duration, and opened to competition when they are permanently filled.

Deputy U.S. Energy Daniel Poneman, a principal actor in the drama, sent out his own statement Tuesday complimenting Bonneville on completing a "get well program" by reconstructing 1,259 hiring cases involving over 22,000 job applications. That remediation, he said, was "to assure that all candidates are treated fairly, and that all of the discrepancies identified have been resolved."

As part of its remediation process, Bonneville offered jobs to 135 candidates and has hired 47. Another 22 possible hires are in process and 66 either declined the agency's offer or didn't respond.

Bonneville's legal exposure over the hiring scandal is still evolving. By the end of September, it had received six veterans-related tort claim notices notifying it of potential lawsuits. Four veterans already have filed suit, and their attorney says he has as many as a dozen in the works. Those suits allege a pattern and practice of discrimination at the agency that was in place long before the two-and-half-year period when BPA acknowledges that its hiring practices were disadvantaging applicants.

Employees have suggested the same to The Oregonian. While the federal investigation focused on Bonneville's manipulation of candidate ratings, employees claim managers have made it a practice over the years to close positions and rewrite job descriptions when a veteran applicant with preference points is "blocking" a preferred candidate. They also contend that the agency regularly fills positions with internal candidates without opening them to competition, as required.

"It's a known practice," said one long-time employee who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "It's like punching in. It's what we do."

Johnson, the BPA spokesman, said employees were talking about the past.

"Today marks the time when we begin to do this right," he said. "It's a new day. We have new policies and procedures in place that we'll stick to tightly because we want to be in compliance."

Part of the battle is convincing the internal audience. Employees have expressed deep-seated skepticism about Bonneville's management culture, most recently in an employee engagement survey released last month that delivered dismal scores on questions about accountability, leadership, communication, change management and inclusiveness.

Mainzer alluded to the findings in his note to employees Tuesday.

"With this chapter of our history now behind us," he said, "I am excited to bring the same commitment and focus to fostering a positive work environment for everyone in our workforce."

Ted Sickinger
Bonneville Regains Hiring Authorities
The Oregonian, September 30, 2014

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