Charges Not New to LANL
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
By Adam Rankin
Copyright © 2002 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Northern Bureau
SANTA FE — Allegations that Los Alamos National Laboratory managers covered up waste or mismanagement date to the mid-1990s.
Lab employees made such allegations in court depositions years before the current controversy over alleged purchasing and property-control problems at the lab.
Chuck Montaño, a lab employee and an advocate for lab employee rights, said the testimonies suggest recent allegations of a cover-up at the lab are not off-base because there is a history of such practices at the lab.
"In those depositions, the point was made that there was a good, concerted effort to prevent problems from coming to the surface, and that is the claim being made now," he said.
He also said the lab's audit system isn't catching waste, abuse and fraud because it no longer operates independently of the lab, as it once did before 1992 when the Department of Energy combined the audit function with the operation of the lab.
Recent revelations of fraud and abuse of government money at the lab and the firings of two lab employees who were investigating the problems have critics questioning whether the lab is hiding broader management problems.
"What we've long worried about is that excessive secrecy breeds abuse of power," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight. "What we're hearing more and more of is clearly evidence of that at Los Alamos."
LANL director John Browne has said he responded as quickly as possible by requesting an investigation by the DOE's inspector general and an external audit group when allegations of a LANL cover-up first became public in an anonymous e-mail in October.
He also said University of California auditors have visited the lab and made management recommendations, many of which had already been implemented.
Linn Tytler, a spokesperson for the lab, said the lab has cooperated with investigations by outside agencies, including the FBI and DOE, and "eagerly awaits" their reports.
Glenn Walp, head of the lab's Office of Security Inquiries, and Steve Doran, a security specialist under Walp, have said the lab fired them in late November after less than a year on the job because they attempted to reveal wrongdoings that lab managers tried to cover up.
Phil Kruger, the deputy director of human resources at the lab, said last week the two were fired because several divisions at the lab "lost confidence" in the pair.
Doran said past testimony bolsters his argument that the lab's Audits and Assessments Division was party to some of the problems he and Walp were investigating, including an agreement to allow an employee to repay $1,800 in stolen lab money and resign without prosecution.
Tommy Hook, former senior adviser for audits in the lab's Internal Evaluation Office, testified in 1997 that his boss — still head of the lab's Audits and Assessments Division — "didn't want to aggressively report findings."
He said Katherine Brittin, who came to LANL as head of Audits and Assessments in 1994, "didn't want to see certain things put in reports," including "unallowable costs" and "embarrassment to the university." LANL is run by the University of California, which has held the contract to operate LANL since 1943.
Brittin, reached at her office Tuesday evening, declined to comment. Montaño said Brittin denied Hook's allegations in a deposition she gave for a layoff suit that was not accessible Tuesday.
Hook's testimony was given as part of a lawsuit against LANL in response to a number of 1995 layoffs, which employees contended disproportionately affected Hispanics and other minorities.
He said Brittin "threatened" him if he did not comply with how she wanted to handle internal audit findings.
"She told me basically, if those findings cost the university money, that it could be my job; it could be my raise; it could be my future; it could be my staff's jobs; etc.," Hook said.
When audit reports indicated waste spending or poor management, Hook testified that many such audits, which required Brittin's approval, would "sit there for months without moving off her desk."
Hook testified that when Brittin discovered Michael Ares, an auditor under Brittin, went directly to the Department of Energy's inspector general about one of the audit reports, she said "I'd like to rip his (expletive) face off."
He also said Brittin told him to be sure auditors did not go directly to the inspector general with reports before going through the management of Audits and Assessments.
Hook, who is still a lab employee though he resigned his post from Audits and Assessments in 1995, was reached at home Monday and declined to comment on his testimony.
Montaño, a team leader in LANL's general accounting operation, said the problem with the Audits and Assessments Division is that it reports to lab management, which it is supposed to be auditing, and not an independent body or board of directors as it did when it was operated out of the University of California's Office of the President.
Jeff Garberson, a spokesman for the University of California, said DOE combined the university's contract to audit the lab with the operating contract in 1992.
Montaño was a lab auditor when the function was transferred to the lab.
In testimony given during the same 1997 layoff lawsuit in which Hook testified, Montaño said "clearly we had much greater independence being under the University Office of the President as opposed to being directly under lab management."
"The laboratory did not want us to be so aggressive," he said. "In fact ... we were told many times that their concern was that these findings would then get into the hands of the public and trigger some questions or trigger additional inquiries, audits or other inquiries."
The DOE's Inspector General's Office recently sent a team to Los Alamos to look into allegations made in an anonymous e-mail to the news media and a watchdog group that LANL officials have covered up theft and other illegal activity at the lab. Lab officials say the lab is cooperating fully in the investigation.
The FBI is investigating allegations of at least $50,000 in questionable purchases that two lab employees, including a $150,000-a-year supervisor, made through an Albuquerque supplier.
Also Tuesday, Governor-elect Bill Richardson, who served as secretary of the Energy Department from 1998 to 2000, said he was unaware of any allegations that the lab attempted to cover up government waste or fraud during his tenure as head of DOE in the Clinton administration and that the National Nuclear Security Administration had oversight of lab audits.
"All I can say about what happened at the labs — that better not happen here in state government," he said at a news conference.
Documents show that the lab has listed millions of dollars worth of items as "lost or stolen" or missing from inventory since 1998, but lab officials have said that many unaccounted items actually have much less value after depreciation and may not actually be missing.