Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary survived a White House rebuke, media enmity and congressional calls for her job, but conceded Friday that she used “bad judgment” in hiring a company to rate journalists covering her agency.
“Even in government, people can make stupid mistakes,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry said after announcing that a review of the $46,500 contract and O’Leary’s role showed no laws were broken.
“Secretary O’Leary has been an effective member of the Cabinet and this matter should not detract from that record,” he said.
O’Leary, at a news conference in New Orleans, said she considered the matter closed, declaring, “I am still gainfully employed” even though a day earlier a White House official called the contract “monumentally dumb.”
“I hope that this one is behind us.” O’Leary said. “The secretary of energy has learned a great deal. I hope that I have been responsive under fire, and I look to be responsive, whether I’m under fire or not, the next time.”
That time may come sooner than O’Leary would like. Congressional critics pounded away on Friday, calling for her to resign. This episode, they charged, is just the latest in a series of questionable actions involving O’Leary, including “excessive travel” and misplaced budget priorities.
“We believe that Secretary O’Leary has forfeited her right to public office and we urge you to ask for and accept her resignation immediately,” said a letter to President Clinton signed by 80 Republican House members.
At least one committee chairman has said he will call a hearing next Friday to examine the contract and O’Leary’s performance.
And while O’Leary was cleared by the White House, her standing in this image-obsessed town has been tarnished. People from the lowliest congressional office all the way to the White House pay close attention to how the media do their job, and anything that appears to infringe on the press’s independence generates controversy.
While the White House review found “no preferential or punitive action” was taken against reporters rated in the program, it made clear its displeasure with any action that could leave an impression that reporters are ranked.
“Rating a scoring of individual reporters and news organizations is an unacceptable practice and will not be tolerated by the White House,” McCurry said in a statement.
O’Leary received a mild sanction from the White House, which ordered her to pay the $46,500 contract with money from her office account.
O’Leary decried such practices as “reprehensible” and insisted several times that she was not aware that the analysis was part of the $46,500 contract awarded to Washington-based Carma International. Reports were issued each month from December 1994 through August 1995.
Monthly scores were based on a review of hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio broadcasts. O’Leary or her aides provided the company with a list of issues on which the reports should be judged, ranging from disposition of radioactive waste, the way the department spends its money, and O’Leary’s public standing.