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Commentaries and editorials

BPA e-mails Show Former Administrator
Steve Wright was in the Loop on Hiring Problems

by Ted Sickinger
The Oregonian, April 10, 2014

Bill Drummond was removed from Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration. Internal e-mails released to The Oregonian by Bonneville Power Administration suggest that former BPA Administrator Steve Wright was repeatedly made aware of the agency's hiring problems and the fact that they were being investigated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Wright retired in early 2013 after serving for 12 years at the top of the federal power marketing agency. And in July, one week after the agency's wide-ranging hiring scandal was thrust into public view, he accepted a high-paying job as general manager of the Chelan Public Utility District in Wenatchee.

The hiring problems and their aftermath put an end to the short tenure of Wright's successor at BPA, Bill Drummond, as well as the agency's Chief Operating Officer, Anita Decker. Both executives were suspended last July as the DOE's office of Inspector General launched an inquiry into allegations that managers were retaliating against whistleblowers. Both ultimately resigned from BPA rather than accept a directed reassignment.

Most of the hiring violations took place during Wright's tenure. At the time, he told The Oregonian that he didn't recall being made aware of the hiring problems or the related investigations while he was running BPA. He told the same thing to The Wenatchee World, which ran an extensive article quoting Wright a week after the hiring scandal broke.

And according to Chelan PUD Commissioner Randy Smith, Wright "absolutely" made the same representation to the utility's board while he was being interviewed for the job, which came with a salary of $295,000 a year.

Ann Congdon, the president of the board at Chelan PUD, said the board questioned Wright extensively about the problems when he joined the utility. Her recollection of his response at the time is different than her colleague's: that Wright said he was aware something was going on, but trusted his human resources staff to handle it.

Wright did send out some written comments about the hiring scandal last October. But he said Wednesday that he's comfortable standing by his original statement. "I was running a $3.5 billion a year organization," he said. "It was not something that registered on my screen."

The e-mails released by BPA this week suggest that the issues were repeatedly raised to his level in mid 2012 and he delegated a response to staff members.

Stephen Wright left his position as Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration before the hiring scandal unfolded before the public.  The hiring scandal and subsequent investigation -- most of which occurred on his watch -- yielded only a handful of emails. But they did suggest that he was repeatedly made aware of the unfolding problem, despite his assertions to the contrary.. In April 2012, Wright received an email from a long time BPA employee that got right to the point: "The administrative department of Bonneville Power Administration and its proxies has engaged in the violation of no less than two federal laws."

The e-mail went on to explain specific violations of federal hiring practices, including screening methods that excluded qualified applicants from being forwarded to hiring managers and denied veterans "the hiring preference they would have been eligible for based on their service."

"BPA has proven to be arbitrary in the application of its own policies, standards and federal laws, now and in the past (I can provide multiple examples). In each case direct questions on the application of policy and law have been ignored or deflected, any explanation that does come back includes a significant amount of spin and/or intimidation."

The e-mail was also addressed to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and was titled "copy of letter delivered to Peter DeFazio." The author, whose name was redacted by BPA, also explained that he or she was being branded a troublemaker for pursuing the issues, and the implication for their job prospects at BPA was clear.

Wright forwarded the e-mail to the agency's chief operating officer, Decker, and the two managers who ran human capital management, Kim Leathley and Roy Fox, with the notation: "For your action as appropriate."

In July, Wright was contacted by the DOE Inspector General's Office, which wanted to know what measures were in place to make sure he and BPA's internal audit department followed up on complaints to the IG Hotline and completed the appropriate response.

The timeframe of that inquiry coincides with the filing of several whistleblower complaints with the Inspector General's office that detailed BPA's hiring violations.

Decker followed up for Wright with BPA staff members, then assured Wright that such a process was in place. In her response to Wright, she included a copy of an internal spreadsheet tracking complaints to the IG Hotline. BPA blocked out the entire spreadsheet, saying the material was "non-responsive" to The Oregonian's records request.

In early August 2012, the DOE's director of strategic planning and policy informed BPA that the department was launching an inquiry into alleged improper or prohibited personnel practices at BPA, including violations of veterans preferences and misuse of hiring qualifications. A memo detailing the scope of the inquiry was forwarded to Wright by Decker, along with a subsequent exchange with Leathley about whether the DOE investigation sounded "adversarial."

Wright stressed Wednesday that the apparently exhaustive search of two years worth of his e-mail turned up no evidence of him encouraging violations of law or policy.

"In a sum total of 3 emails, I took actions to forward for review and tracking early concerns raised about hiring practices," Wright said in a written statement. "This is consistent with protocol for a person acting at my level."

Indeed, Wright said the tiny number of e-mails that BPA provided in response to the Oregonian's records request demonstrates the point that it wasn't a big deal in the scheme of issues he was dealing with.

"In the scheme of managing an agency with $3.5 billion in annual revenue, with responsibilities for managing the Columbia River hydropower and transmission system, salmon recovery, wind integration, and rates that affect over 11 million people I am not surprised that I did not focus enough on this issue in a way that it would be something I would recall."

Congdon, the Chelan board president, said Wednesday she sees no reason for concern or follow up by the utility's board.

"We cannot be happier with Steve," she said. "As an administrator for our public utility, he's been terrific."

Related Pages:
Energy Department Ousts 2 Top Officials of Bonneville Power Administration by Steven Mufson, Washington Post, 7/16/13
Hydro BiOp At Half-Way Point; Agencies Report on Progress by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 7/18/13
DOE Appoints Elliot Mainzer Interim Leader of BPA; Bill Drummond's Fate Unclear by Ted Sickinger, The Oregonian, 7/15/13
New Leader Appointed to Bonneville Power Administration by Staff, Statesman Journal, 1/27/14
Doc Hastings to Retire from Congress by Abby Livingston, Roll Call, 2/13/14

Jeff Stier, Senior Policy Advisor at BPA by Jeff Stier, LinkedIn.com, 3/14
bluefish surreptitiously attends a Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative meeting and poses two questions, Answered by Steve Wright, 3/29/11


Ted Sickinger
BPA e-mails Show Former Administrator Steve Wright was in the Loop on Hiring Problems
The Oregonian, April 10, 2014

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