Editorial: Lab-contractor laxity in the past? Right ...
Yesterday's front-page news is no such thing to hundreds of the Northern New Mexicans who've worked for subcontractors at Los Alamos National Laboratory, nor to anyone else up there:
The largest of those "subs," KSL Services, is under investigation for, to put it mildly, running a sloppy operation. To hear high-paid lab spokespeople covering posteriors public-relationswise, the report from the federal Energy Department's Office of Inspector General should be seen solely in past tense: We've already taken steps to resolve the problems.
What problems? Oh, like an employee putting in for 35 hours of work repairing concrete steps that already had been repaired. Or those guys sleeping in their trucks, but still managing to put those hours on the company's tab. Or double-charging LANL, and the grateful taxpayers supporting it, for electrical wire. And, often, charging 20 percent over a project's cost estimate.
All part of doing business with Uncle Sugar? Or inadvertent lapses which, henceforth, won't happen?
Don't bet on the latter, even though the report is further fodder for the flinty-eyed members of Congress who've supplanted our state's long-generous Sen. Pete Domenici as the lab's budgetmasters. The amount of work done by the private outfits on "the Hill," and the amount billed, were at odds long before KSL entered the scene nearly five years ago. Many a hardworking and capable New Mexican, once on the payroll of a lab subcontractor, is somehow encouraged to, uh, take it easy.
What didja do at work today? Oh, I moved a two-by-four from one building to another one. Tomorrow they'll prob'ly tell me to move it back ... The guy no doubt is exaggerating — but what with indecisive bosses and those seeking to squeeze maximum profits out of their contracts, there's lots of slippage, followed by balance-sheet scrambling to make up for it.
Lab critics are calling for criminal charges — and, considering KSL's connections with Bush administration pals, such a reaction is understandable. But proving intent to defraud might be difficult, if not impossible.
Instead, New Mexicans and their fellow Americans should be glad inspectors are on top of the situation — and that the lab itself has at least taken over responsibility for estimating project costs.
Overcoming a six-decades-old culture of arrogance, and fallout in managerial shoddiness, isn't easy. Lab director Michael Anastasio last year waded into a maelstrom of inherited problems he's doing his best to clear away with congressional kibitzers all over his back.
If, as his public-relations folks claim, the situation already has been taken care of, we expect to see that reflected next time the Inspector General pays a visit.