Audit Report: OAI-M-17-08

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July 10, 2017

Review of Training Expenses at the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy

The Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy (Fossil Energy) is responsible for Federal research, development, and demonstration efforts on advanced fossil energy technologies, as well as management of the Nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Fossil Energy is committed to providing its Federal workforce with learning opportunities required to ensure success within their current positions, while supporting their Program office’s mission critical goals and objectives.  As part of a well-rounded continuing education program, Fossil Energy has created numerous training assistance programs to provide its employees with opportunities to enhance their skills and competencies through advanced degrees and college-level courses.

In May 2016, the Office of Inspector General received a Hotline Complaint alleging that Fossil Energy had paid for an employee’s college degree that was unrelated to his current position. We initiated this review to examine the facts surrounding the allegation.

We substantiated the allegation that Fossil Energy officials approved training for one employee that was not applicable to his official workplace responsibilities, as required by Departmental regulations. This employee left the Department for work in the private sector shortly after receiving his law degree in May 2013. 

We found that from 2009 through 2013, Fossil Energy paid for 29 college courses, totaling approximately $138,000, for a general engineer to obtain a law degree. This employee enrolled in three to four law-related courses a semester at the American University in Washington, DC. Based on our review, we concluded that a majority of the courses taken by the employee were unrelated to his position at the Department.

We found that although Fossil Energy had sufficient review/approval policies and procedures in place, in this instance, these controls were overridden by senior management officials in the approval chain at the time, including the Chief Operating Officer and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary. Specifically, training approval officials told us that when they questioned the applicability of the law-degree courses for a general engineer, senior management officials verbally directed them to approve the training requests. Although the applicability of training courses had been questioned on a number of occasions (and by a number of reviewers), no documentation existed to explain why senior management officials directed training officials to approve the courses. Further, we were unable to interview these management officials because they had left the agency.

We found that Fossil Energy had not considered obtaining a continued service agreement for the employee, even though he had taken extensive training at considerable cost to the Department. While the Department regulation only requires continued service agreements for training activities that exceed 180-training hours, it allows Department elements, such as Fossil Energy, to establish a lesser hour threshold for continued service agreements, if applied equitably to all participants. Refining its training policies to allow for an expansion in the consideration of continued service agreement requirements would help to ensure that Department funds are expended efficiently and effectively.

Without ensuring that funds are spent on training related to job responsibilities, the Department may not receive the maximum benefit of training funds spent and enhance the capabilities of the Federal workforce at Fossil Energy. Further, taxpayer funds may not be put to the most beneficial use in support of the Program’s mission. Finally, by not considering the use of continued service agreements, Fossil Energy may not fully benefit from enhancing its workforce’s capabilities over time.

To ensure that Fossil Energy obtains the maximum benefit from training its employees with taxpayer dollars, we made recommendations to the Acting Assistant Secretary, Office of Fossil Energy.  Management generally concurred with the report’s recommendations and identified a number of actions that were either completed or planned to address our recommendations.