Energy Secretary Taking Offensive in House Hearing on Trade Missions
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Under attack for months from congressional critics about her foreign travel, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary is taking the offensive, ready to defend her controversial trade missions, which cost taxpayers $3.2 million.
O’Leary was to testify today before the House Commerce investigations subcommittee, which has been looking into 16 overseas trips she has taken as energy secretary, including trade missions to India, Pakistan, China and South Africa.
Republican members of the panel have been highly critical of the business promotions _ each involving groups of between 59 and 67 executives and department officials _ saying that expenses were mismanaged and the Energy Department has yet to show any substantial economic benefits.
Associates of O’Leary said Wednesday that the secretary is eager to tell her side of the story and had wanted to testify last December when the Commerce panel opened its inquiry, but her appearance was canceled by the subcommittee.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the subcommittee chairman, said he wanted to focus on fact gathering and reviewing hundreds of documents supplied by the department _ as well as a review by congressional auditors _ before calling O’Leary to testify.
While acknowledging some poor management and sloppy record keeping, O’Leary plans to strongly defend her trade missions as valuable in the long term in helping U.S. companies develop business in parts of the world where energy needs will grow immensely in the coming decades.
O’Leary got some support Wednesday from nine executives who traveled on some of the trade missions. They called the government-sponsored trips valuable in laying the groundwork for business opportunities and in some cases an important factor in developing contracts.
Kenneth Kara, president of Zond Corp., a company that makes wind power generating equipment, questioned why lawmakers ``would spend so much time investigating″ the trade missions that, he said, over time ``will more than pay for themselves.″
Jerome Davis, president of Cummins Renewable Energy Corp., who went with O’Leary to South Africa, called the trip ``an extremely helpful first step″ that he said will lead to the sale of ``tens of millions of dollars of solar equipment″ in the country.
Barton told the executives that while he considered international trade promotion proper for the federal government, it shouldn’t be the job of the Energy Department ``or the No. 1 priority of the secretary of energy.″
The Energy Department ``has greatly exaggerated the economic benefits of the trade missions,″ he argued.
Republican members of the subcommittee repeatedly in recent months have accused the Clinton administration of overstating the benefits of O’Leary’s promotional trade trips. They cited early claims of as much as $19 billion in potential benefits, later reduced to just over $2 billion in firm contracts arising from the trips to India, Pakistan, China and South Africa in 1994 and 1995.
The General Accounting Office, Congress’ auditing arm, said that it could substantiate only about $450 million in additional U.S. exports resulting from the four trips because many of the firm contracts involved major foreign partners, including Japanese, German and British companies.
Last week an internal DOE inspector general’s report said that while the trips ``helped move many (ongoing commercial) agreements forward″ the department could not quantify the benefits either in contracts or the breaking down of barriers for the U.S. companies that participated.
In addition to the four trade missions, O’Leary has traveled extensively to various European cities and to Russia, usually in connection with official business involving discussions on nuclear weapons or energy issues.