By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic commissioner accused the head of the U.S. nuclear regulator of mistreating staff, including verbally abusing female workers, in an explosive congressional hearing on allegations of toxic relations within the agency.
Gregory Jaczko, the embattled chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, denied the charges - which he said came as a surprise - and said he has no plan to resign.
The five-member commission has long been embroiled in a struggle over roles and policy, but Wednesday's hearing at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was the first time commissioners had publicly spoken about their concerns about the management style of Jaczko.
The controversy coincides with the commission working on a sweeping set of regulatory changes recommended following the March nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The changes could cost millions of dollars for operators of the 104 aging nuclear power plants in the United States.
Democratic commissioners William Magwood and George Apostolakis and Republicans Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff expanded on concerns they had raised with the White House, describing how Jaczko bullied people, withheld information and interfered with their access to senior staff.
Jaczko, 41, displayed none of the bad temper ascribed to him. He was calm even during the most heated challenges from lawmakers during he two-hour hearing, smiling tightly at times.
But Jaczko was not contrite. He told lawmakers he had nothing to apologize for, other than that the internal politics had become a "distraction."
"I'm very passionate about safety," Jaczko said, explaining he believed some colleagues had "misconstrued" his intensity.
Jaczko said he hopes to work on communication issues with his colleagues, perhaps with help from a mediator.
The ranking Democrat on the committee told the five commissioners they need to try harder to work out their issues.
"I feel like I'm sitting here trying to referee a fight. I haven't done that since my kids were tiny, they're nearly adults," Elijah Cummings said.
Some Democrats at the hearing questioned whether commissioners were trying to stall costly reforms for the nuclear industry by coming forward with their complaints.
"I am very offended by the suggestion that I am an instrument of the industry," said George Apostolakis, a Democratic appointee and nuclear engineer who is a recognized expert in risk modeling.
The commissioners said they were willing to try to fix the problems, if Jaczko changed his attitude.
Svinicki told lawmakers the commissioners have all been at the receiving end of Jaczko's "continued outbursts of abusive rage." Other commissioners said they were most concerned Jaczko's temper was creating a hostile workplace for staff.
Magwood described three cases where Jaczko has humiliated senior female staff who Jaczko described a "smart, tough women who have succeeded in a male-dominated environment."
"Enduring this type of abuse and being reduced to tears in front of colleagues and subordinates is a profoundly painful experience for them," Magwood said, explaining the women have chosen to keep the matters private.
"This is the first time I've heard many of these accusations," Jaczko told lawmakers, denying he was verbally abusive. "I don't believe that they are true."
Jaczko told Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, he has not intimidated people or behaved unprofessionally, denying charges raised by his commissioners to the White House.
"I don't believe you," Chaffetz told Jaczko. "I think you should resign."
Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the watchdog panel, said he expects to see improvements from Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"If he doesn't get it, if he doesn't know he has to make significant differences in how he manages this organization of 4,000 men and women, then he's missed the transition from Hill staffer to leader of a major organization," Issa told reporters.
(Editing by Russell Blinch and Doina Chiacu)