Sen. Boxer defends nuclear chief, assails critics

By Matthew Daly

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 9:56 a.m. MST

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, right, greets Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, prior to Jaczko testifying before a joint Environment and Public Works-Clean Air and Nuclear Safety subcommittee hearing.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The head of the Senate committee that oversees the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Thursday that allegations that the agency chairman was a bully were unfounded and unfairly maligned him.

Sen. Barbara Boxer said that a GOP-led House hearing on Gregory Jaczko's behavior amounted to little more than a "witch hunt" that "attempted to assassinate the character of a dedicated public servant."

Boxer, who leads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Jaczko was a "proven leader" who has advanced important safety reforms at the commission. "Our nation is fortunate to have Greg Jaczko sitting in the chairman's seat, said Boxer, D-Calif.

Jaczko's four fellow commissioners described him at the House hearing as an intimidating bully whose actions could compromise U.S. nuclear safety. The two Democratic and two Republican commissioners held Jaczko, a Democrat, responsible for what they said was an increasingly tense and unsettled work environment at the NRC.

Jaczko denied wrongdoing but said he has suggested the commissioners talk to a "trusted third party" to improve communications.

That hearing, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, seemed at times more like a soap opera than an oversight session on nuclear power.

"I feel like I'm sitting here trying to referee a fight," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat. "I haven't done that since my kids were tiny."

The four commissioners wrote the White House in October to express "grave concern" about Jaczko's actions. Their letter stopped short of calling for Jaczko to resign but said he "intimidated and bullied" senior career staff, ordered staff to withhold information and ignored the will of the panel's majority.

The letter was signed by Democrats William Magwood and George Apostolakis as well as Republicans Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff.

The commissioners told Congress that women at the NRC felt particularly intimidated by Jaczko. Magwood told House lawmakers that Jaczko had bullied and belittled at least three female staff members, one of whom told Magwood she was "humiliated" by what Magwood called a "raging verbal assault."

Svinicki, the only female commissioner, told committee investigators that she was so uncomfortable around Jaczko that she asked her chief of staff to "keep watch" over a private meeting with the chairman in Svinicki's office.

Asked about that, Jaczko said, "I'm very passionate about safety, and all the things that I do at the agency are directed towards doing what I think is the right thing for safety."

Pressed, Jaczko said he went to Svinicki's office "to speak with her about a letter, I believe." At one point, he said, Svinicki "became concerned, and as I recall I simply motioned. I said, 'Let's just sit down, let's just calm down and let's just work through it.' We continued to discuss it, and then at some point I left."

Asked if he had ever apologized for that incident or any others described to the committee, Jaczko said he was hearing many of the allegations for the first time, despite an inspector general's report on his behavior in June and a letter from fellow commissioners sent to him and the White House in October.

"Certainly if there's ever been a time when I have made someone feel uncomfortable, I always like to know so that I can take whatever action is necessary to remedy that," Jaczko said.

Magwood, a Democrat, disputed a claim by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the allegations against Jaczko were politically motivated. Jaczko worked for Reid before joining the NRC, and Reid's strong support for Jaczko is considered crucial in keeping his job.

Reid is the leading congressional opponent of a planned nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Jaczko has made a series of decisions over the past two years that have aided the Obama administration's goal of shutting down Yucca Mountain.

Jaczko apologized for the distraction that had been created during his 2 ½ years in the job and said he looked forward to discussing ways "to improve communication and trust." He said he had no plans to step down.

Ostendorff said the issue was not Yucca Mountain or party politics, but Jaczko's "bullying and intimidation" of NRC staffers and even some commissioners, which Ostendorff said "should not and cannot be tolerated."

Ostendorff, a Republican, said he had "lost faith" in Jaczko's ability to lead the commission.

White House chief of staff Bill Daley said this week that problems at the NRC stem from the commission's "strong chairman" structure, in which the leader of the five-member panel has far greater powers than the remaining four commissioners.

Follow Matthew Daly's energy coverage at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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