Democrats want answers on DOE transition document



Twenty-seven House Democrats on Monday sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump describing “extreme concern” over a recent transition team questionnaire that appeared to take aim at the national laboratories.

The group was led by Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, whose district includes Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories. All the signers either represent a district where national labs are located, or serve on committees with jurisdiction over the labs.

The representatives vowed to defend the scientific freedom of employees at the U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 national labs. They said the questionnaire indicated there may be attempts under a Trump presidency to “retaliate against them or defund their work.”

The questionnaire was disavowed last week by the Trump transition team, which said in a statement to the Washington Post that the document was “not authorized,” and the “person who sent it has been properly counseled.”

But that didn’t stop the House members from sending off their critical letter Monday — or a group of nine Senate Democrats from sending a Friday letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, requesting an investigation into the 74-question document.

The senators said several of the questions — including those asking for names of DOE employees who have worked on climate change policies and attended international climate meetings — “appear to have violated long-standing federal laws designed to protect civil servants against coercion for partisan purposes.”

The House letter focused on nine lab-specific questions, which included requests for peer-reviewed publications by lab staff over the past three years, a list of professional society memberships held by lab employees, and websites lab staff actively contribute to or maintain.

“Such questions about DOE lab staff are worrisome because they suggest there may be attempts by the incoming Administration to retaliate against them or defund their work, even if blame for the questionnaire is now said to rest with a reportedly ‘rogue’ transition team employee,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Regardless of one’s views on climate change, it is simply inappropriate to target hard-working public servants simply for doing their jobs,” they said. “Staff at our DOE labs go where the science takes them, and for that they should be praised, not punished.”

The lawmakers noted because the labs are operated by contractors, employment decisions were restricted to DOE lab managers — a layer of separation that “should protect the important and well-earned academic freedom of DOE lab staff from political interference.”

They requested that Trump’s transition team provide the purpose behind each question related to the labs, and what the transition team had planned to do with the information they got back.

One of the signers of the House letter was Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which oversees funding for DOE and the labs. In a statement, she said workers of the national labs “often turn science fiction ideas into reality.

“Any challenge to these public servants’ scientific autonomy creates grave concerns to the integrity of their work, and is harmful to our country and scientific independence around the world,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, the Republican chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee and representative for Idaho National Laboratory, did not respond to requests for comment on the DOE questionnaire and the Monday letter from lawmakers to Trump.

Representatives for Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch — both Republicans are frequently involved with INL issues — also did not respond to questions about the questionnaire or their colleagues’ responses to it.

An Idaho National Laboratory spokeswoman said lab officials are not authorized to comment on transition issues, referring the Post Register to DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C. A spokeswoman there said the department would not comment on any issues relating to the questionnaire, or the congressional responses to it.

Leaders of the national laboratories including INL Director Mark Peters met with members of the transition team in Washington, D.C., last week. Little was known about what was discussed. Peters was not available for comment.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth