WENATCHEE — A culture of intimidation and a mentality that rules were open to interpretation prevailed among some employees while Steve Wright was in charge of the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal investigation has concluded.
But Wright says his record in that post should be enough to show that those problems aren’t likely to filter into the work environment at the Chelan County PUD while he’s general manager.
“Look at the body of work,” he said Tuesday of his 12 years as leader of the federal agency, which owns most northwestern U.S. transmission lines and sells power generated by federal dams on the Columbia River system.
“If this were a frequent occurrence, I wouldn’t have been the second-longest tenured administrator at the BPA… These kinds of things were not common… The errors need to be fixed, but in a way that local and regional control of the agency is not lost, because this is where the dollars come from and where the benefits are supposed to go.”
Wright is barely three months into his new job at a PUD with its own history of paying big penalties or settlements for retaliating against or improperly firing employees.
He spoke out for the first time Tuesday about the findings released earlier this month of a Department of Energy investigation into allegations that Bonneville’s human resources personnel defied a federal mandate to give veterans preference for BPA jobs and manipulated a point system for ranking job applicants so managers could hire who they wanted.
The report estimates that prohibited practices occurred in at least 117 of 240 (49 percent) recruitments conducted from November 2010 to June 2012.
Agency officials tried to conceal their misdeeds from investigators and retaliated against at least two employees who spoke out against it, the report says, likening the findings to a “Massive breakdown in procedures, processes and management attentiveness.”
The feds have ordered the agency to “reconstruct” some 22,000 case files, at a potential cost to its ratepayers of more than $3 million.
Wright, 55, retired from Bonneville last January.
The investigation resulted in the suspension in July of Wright’s replacement as administrator, Bill Drummond, and the agency’s chief operating officer, Anita Decker.
The 31-page report contains no specific employee names. It describes a management culture that sought to distance itself from Department of Energy control and regarded federal rules as “open to interpretation.”
Wright said he was never questioned during the investigation and wasn’t aware of the problems while he was in charge.
He commented Tuesday based on what he read in the findings report, which he said left him “surprised, disappointed and concerned that it lacked context.”
“Bonneville’s focus is on trying to create value for the Northwest. That’s the driving influence,” he said. “I think the efforts for the most part were well intended and not malicious. Nobody was seeking self enrichment. They were trying to do something they felt was in the public interest, and they missed. They missed on compliance and regulation.”
On retaliation, he added, “Certainly, no one was going to get financial gain out of taking action against an employee,” but he admits to the possibility that managers may have retaliated in an attempt to protect their own jobs.
“The fundamental problem is I don’t know and I have no way of knowing,” he said.
Nor, he said, could good intentions have been the motive of human resource managers who, according to another of the report’s findings, weren’t immediately forthcoming with investigators in an apparent attempt to conceal their misdeeds.
“If something goes on, my view has always been that the best thing you can do is own up to it and move on,” he said. Based on the evidence in the report, that part of it doesn’t look very good.”
How could he not have known this was going on?
Wright says the job-applicant rating process was technical and not a subject for executive management discussions.
Details about whistleblower cases are intentionally withheld from the agency’s top manager, to ensure the disgruntled employee can receive an unbiased appeal process, he said.
Bonneville sought to create a human resources department that went beyond enforcing rules to become a provider of recruitment, training and employee-development services to managers throughout the agency. But it went too far, Wright said of a lesson learned from the incidents.
“You have to have a thing about this balance between compliance and service,” he said. “We were trying to move the pendulum more toward services. A key learning is you can’t push that so far without paying attention to compliance.”
He added, “Part two is trying to create more openness to hear about concerns with respect to a culture of intimidation and mistrust — that was a surprise to me. I need to make sure I find mechanisms to remain open to hearing those sorts of things.”
Wright defends the agency’s employees for speaking out about the wrongdoing that sparked the investigation, which he hopes will not be a distraction from his new job.
“My goal is for it not to be,” he said. I’m not kidding about the fact that I regret that this has happened on my watch. And I wonder what I could have done that would have left this in a different place than where it was. And I hope that people would say that in their own lives that we all make some mistakes. The question is, how many chances did you get to make mistakes? I’ve had a lot of chances, and a lot of things have gone right.”