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Background: Congressional Lightening Rod

June 13, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


HAZEL O’LEARY: I am delighted to accept President Clinton’s nomination to be the Secretary of Energy.

MARGARET WARNER: Hazel O’Leary came to Washington in early 1993 as a relative unknown, a millionaire utility company executive from Minnesota who had just been named Energy Secretary in the new Clinton administration.

She won early plaudits for declassifying Cold War-era records showing that the U.S. Government had used American citizens as guinea pigs in radiation experiments, and last year, O’Leary successfully resisted efforts by the new Republican Congress to abolish her department in the name of deficit reduction. The personal criticism of her has proved more troublesome, however.

Critics say the 58 year old energy secretary travels too much and spends too lavishly when she does. She has made more than 100 trips since taking office, including sixteen trips abroad, four of them trade missions with corporate executives.

REP. RICHARD ZIMMER, (R) New Jersey: (January 5, 1996) There are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are completely unaccounted for of the expenditures that she made in her trips overseas. She spent more days out of the country than in the country–Vienna, three times to beautiful Vienna, one time with an entourage so large that a diplomat from the United States wired back to the State Department that the size of her entourage exceeded critical thermonuclear mass. Moscow–four times. London, Brussels, Florence, Hong Kong, Prague, Costa Rica, the Ivory Coast. Mr. Speaker, it is time for Hazel O’Leary to go.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressional opponents criticized her penchant for first class flights, five-star hotels, and occasional chartered airplanes, including the MGM Grand plane once used by rock star Madonna. O’Leary responded by saying she often pays the cost of these upgrades, herself.

Two weeks ago, the Energy Department’s inspector general issued a report on O’Leary’s travel–a 182-page analysis compiled at O’Leary’s request documented the cost of her sixteen foreign trips, including the four trade missions to India, Pakistan, China, and South Africa. The inspector general found that the 16 foreign trips cost taxpayers more than $4.5 million. The four trade missions alone cost $3.4 million. The breakdown of taxpayer-funded costs included the following: about $600,000 for her trip to South Africa, which included O’Leary and 63 staffers, close to $700,000 for her trip to India, which included nearly $500,000 for a chartered plane, and $53,800 for telephone costs alone during her 12-day trip to China. The IG also said Energy Department staffers may have committed criminal violations on a couple of these trips by spending money that had not yet been authorized to be spent.

Today O’Leary appeared before the House Commerce Committee to respond to the report. She defended the mode and costs of her travel on these trade missions, but she did concede there were management problems at her department.

HAZEL O’LEARY, Secretary of Energy: I take personal and complete responsibility. I want the American public especially to know, Mr. Chairman, as well as this committee, that I apologize. I will always regret that we fell short not only of your estimation how these trade missions should have been conducted, but most importantly the American public’s estimation of how they should be conducted.

MARGARET WARNER: The committee pressed her to explain the spending cited as possible criminal misconduct by the inspector general.

REP. JOE BARTON, (R) Texas: Were you aware on these two trade missions that there were insufficient funds in the entertainment and expense account, reception account at the Department of Energy, to pay for those receptions?

SEN. HAZEL O’LEARY: No, I was not, Mr. Chairman.

REP. JOE BARTON: To your knowledge, which officer in the department was aware? Because the trip–the inspector general draft report says in the case of the South African trip that Department officials were informed, so who was aware of this in the Department?

SEN. HAZEL O’LEARY: Mr. Chairman, I cannot detail specifically who was aware but I can say this: Those charges, especially with respect to South Africa where I do have some knowledge, there was an attempt to collect and set that money aside, and for that very reason, those charges continued to be in suspense. It is very difficult for me to at this moment tell you how many people knew and worked on this issue, but I will undertake to answer that question for you, and I will be pleased to provide it for the record.

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX, (R) California: We can’t get today an answer to a simple question, which is whether or not you spent more money than the law allowed on these respects. The IG says that you did. You do not say that you did not, but rather that you yet do not know.

SEN. HAZEL O’LEARY: Mr. Cox, I have said now repeatedly that I believe on the information that I have had an opportunity to review–and I have had to take that opportunity–that, that, that we had set aside funds for the payment of those receptions and I also have told you that the inspector general, himself, said that our general counsel should review these facts and ask the discrete questions which is not my place to ask. I don’t go around interviewing our employees. And when he has finished that work, I will be in a position to tell you on the basis of his review what are his final conclusions. And I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to have to continue to respond to this question.

MARGARET WARNER: Some Democrats on the committee defended her actions.

REP. JOHN D. DINGELL, (D) Michigan: I have gathered from a careful listening to your comments and also from a careful reading of your statement that when this process has been completed, that’s going on, I gathered with considerable vigor, that you will take all necessary corrective actions to rectify the problems and see to it that these kinds of trips in the future are taken in the fashion that’s fully appropriate and proper, is that correct?

SEN. HAZEL O’LEARY: That’s correct, sir.

REP. JOHN D. DINGELL: It looks like we’ve ended the problem that’s before us, doesn’t it? (laughter in room)