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O'Leary on the Hot Seat

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

O'Leary on the Hot Seat

Article excerpt

Energy Department Secretary spends five hours being grilled by two House subcommittees about DOE's contract for media analysis

Whether it was an attempt to get to the root of what Republicans called "unnecessary, wasteful, reckless efforts at self-promotion," or a "witch hunt," as Democrats described it, Energy Department Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary was in the hot seat.

For five hours, two House Commerce Committee subcommitties (Energy and Power, and Oversight and Investigations) grilled O'Leary about the department's $46,500 contract for media analysis from Carma International (E&P, Nov. 18, p. 18).

Committee chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) fired the opening salvo, calling the department "a bureaucracy so bloated, so wasteful, so arrogant that it would spend tens of thousands of dollars to rank its critics."

Democratic committee members tended to support O'Leary, including Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.), who charged there was "a taint of pure politics here," and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who called the proceeding a "witch hunt" and charged Republicans with "looking for a reason to embarrass" O'Leary and the president.

Other Democrats questioned whether it was appropriate to focus on this issue when the government was in the fourth day of a massive shutdown.

The committee provided reporters with reams of documentation, including a memo showing that O'Leary had been told "unfavorable" reporters were being contacted by press office staff, e-mail messages from the public affairs office asking staffers for media analysis, at the behest of the secretary; and statements of work in Carma contracts that specifically show the company is known for its favorable/unfavorable ranking system.

O'Leary told the committee members that she was unaware of any media ranking being conducted by the press office or in the Carma reports, which she said were not useful.

O'Leary recalled seeing two of the reports, but not the listings. She noted, however, that at least one was presented to her in a 600-page briefing book.

"I paid too little attention to it," O'Leary said of the Carma report, "and the Wall Street Journal paid too much."

Despite its apparent lack of useful information, the Carma contract was twice renewed, which the Energy secretary explained was due to an effort to improve its methodology. After seven reports, the contract expired at the end of August and it was not renewed.

"It was never our intention to get a ranking of reporters," O'Leary said, adding, "Our intention was different from what we got. …

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