By H. JOSEF HEBERT
WASHINGTON (AP) — Energy Secretary Steven Chu is limiting his direct involvement in overseeing three of the Energy Department's premier research laboratories to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
A department spokesman acknowledged Friday that Chu has informed the department's ethics office that he will recuse himself from contract, financial and certain work performance related decisions at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. They are managed by the University of California, the secretary's former employer.
Chu has also said in the past that he would recuse himself from certain issues involving the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where he was director until chosen by President Barack Obama to be energy secretary.
Los Alamos and Livermore are two of the government's premier nuclear weapons research facilities, but they also conduct other research. The Berkeley lab has been in the forefront of research into renewable energy.
Despite the recusals, department spokesman Dan Leistikow said Chu remains "actively engaged in oversight of the labs, is in frequent contact with the lab directors and is regularly briefed about the security situation" at the facilities.
Leistikow characterized the kinds of decisions that Chu will not get involved in as "mostly lower level" that normally would be taken care of by subordinates. "He put these recusals in writing so there would be no question about how seriously he takes matters of public trust," said Leistikow in an e-mail.
But the recusals, which largely involve contract and financial issues, raise questions as to what extent Chu could get involved in lab performance and possible future disciplinary action. The department's power to discipline a laboratory is largely limited to withholding fees paid for poor performance or mismanagement.
Los Alamos in New Mexico over the years has had a string of security lapses that have reverberated to the highest levels of the Energy Department and prompted fines and several management changes at the lab. Lawrence Livermore also has had past problems involving security and environmental issues.
Chu's recusal letter, dated Jan. 6, was first reported Friday by The Energy Daily trade publication.