WASHINGTON (AP) - In a stunning public rebuke, four members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sat next to the panel's embattled chairman, Gregory Jaczko, on Wednesday and told Congress he was an intimidating bully whose actions could compromise the nation's nuclear safety.
Jaczko denied wrongdoing but said he has suggested the five commissioners talk to a "trusted third party" to improve communications.
The hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at times seemed more like a soap opera than an oversight session on nuclear power. Several lawmakers said they had trouble believing what they were hearing - or even that the session was called at all.
"I feel like I'm sitting here trying to referee a fight," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee's senior Democrat. "I haven't done that since my kids were tiny."
Noting that Congress has a low approval rating, Cummings said, "Congress isn't functioning very well at all. So I don't want to sit here and tell you how to conduct your business."
The commissioners - two Democrats and two Republicans - said Jaczko, a Democrat, is responsible for an increasingly tense and unsettled work environment at the NRC. The four commissioners sent a letter to the White House in October expressing "grave concern" about Jaczko' s actions.
The commissioners told Congress the women at the NRC felt particularly intimidated by Jaczko. Commissioner William Magwood told the oversight panel that Jaczko had bullied and belittled at least three female staff members, one of whom told Magwood she was "humiliated" by what Magwood called a "raging verbal assault."
Kristine Svinicki, the commission's only woman, told committee investigators that she was so uncomfortable around Jaczko that she asked her chief of staff to "keep watch" over a private meeting with the chairman in Svinicki's office.
Asked about the incident Wednesday, Jaczko said, "I'm very passionate about safety, and all the things that I do at the agency are directed towards doing what I think is the right thing for safety."
Pressed, Jaczko said he went to Svinicki's office "to speak with her about a letter, I believe." At one point, he said, Svinicki "became concerned, and as I recall I simply motioned. I said, "Let's just sit down, let's just calm down and let's just work through it.' We continued to discuss it, and then at some point I left."
Asked if he had ever apologized for that incident or any of other incidents described at the hearing, Jaczko said he was hearing many of the allegations for the first time - despite an inspector general's report on his behavior in June and a letter from fellow commissioners sent to him and the White House in October.
"Certainly if there's ever been a time when I have made someone feel uncomfortable, I always like to know so that I can take whatever action is necessary to remedy that," Jaczko said.
Magwood, a Democrat, disputed a claim by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the allegations against Jaczko were politically motivated. Jaczko worked for Reid before joining the NRC, and Reid's strong support for Jaczko is considered crucial in keeping his job.
Reid is the leading congressional opponent of a planned nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Jaczko has made a series of decisions over the past two years that have aided the Obama administration's goal of shutting down Yucca Mountain.
Rep. Dennis Ross, D-Fla., said the situation reminded him of the movie "The Caine Mutiny," in which Humphrey Bogart's character was put on trial by his own crew members.
"So, I mean, it begs the question, Capt. - I mean, Chairman - Jaczko. How has the voyage been so far?" Ross asked.
Jaczko apologized for the distraction that had been created and said he looked forward to discussing ways "to improve communication and trust."
Even so, Jaczko denied that he has bullied and intimidated staff members and said he has no plans to step down.
Under fierce questioning from the House panel, Jaczko refused to name a single thing he had done wrong in his 2 1/2-year tenure as NRC chair.
"I have no plans to resign, because I continue to believe under my leadership the agency has performed very well," Jaczko said. "We have committed ourselves to safety, and I believe my record shows that."
Commissioner William Ostendorff said the issue was not Yucca Mountain or party politics, but Jaczko's "bullying and intimidation" of NRC staffers and even some commissioners, which Ostendorff said "should not and cannot be tolerated."
Ostendorff, a Republican, said he had "lost faith" in Jaczko's ability to lead the commission.
Jaczko acknowledged having a heated conversation with a senior NRC manager about the agency's response to Japan's nuclear crisis last spring.
"I often engaged my colleagues in discussions about safety and that's been my style," Jaczko said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Jaczko should resign. "You're telling me they are all wrong and you are right," he told Jaczko. "That to me is a lack of leadership."
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he found Jaczko's answers hard to believe. "I've never seen such self-deluded behavior by any individual probably in my whole life," he said.
"It is clear from your statements and your actions that you believe your judgment and your passion surpasses the four (other commissioners) combined," Labrador said
White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley said this week that problems at the NRC stem from the commission's "strong chairman" structure, in which the leader of the five-member panel has far greater powers than the remaining four commissioners.