Two whistleblowers told lawmakers Wednesday that the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico will be vulnerable to theft and fraud until managers who allegedly covered up widespread problems are fired and a new leadership team is fully in place.
The University of California runs the nuclear weapons lab for the Energy Department.
Managers at Los Alamos knew that lab workers misused government purchase cards to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of personal items, yet failed to tell the proper law enforcement authorities and obstructed investigations, said Glenn Walp and Steven Doran at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Managers at Los Alamos will present their side of the story to the subcommittee next week.
Walp and Doran, who were hired as investigators at the lab in January and July 2002, respectively, testified that managers told them to keep quiet about evidence of the purchase card fraud and thefts. The managers warned them that exposing the fraud and theft would make Los Alamos look bad, jeopardizing the University of California's roughly $1.7 billion-a-year contract to run the lab for the Energy Department. The school was unaware of these warnings, Bruce Darling, the interim vice president of university affairs, told lawmakers.
According to Walp, lab management allegedly hired Doran and him as investigators at the facility's office of security inquiries because the two were law enforcement experts who could help train the office's largely "incompetent" staff. But it soon became clear that the investigators were not allowed to dig too deeply into the lab's purchasing practices, they testified.
The alleged practices include using government purchase cards to buy camping gear, fishing rods, automobile parts, instructions on how to pick locks, lock-picking tools and snow blowers. The purchase cards are like charge cards and are intended to help government officials buy relatively small items without going through a lot of paperwork.
According to Walp, managers constantly thwarted his inquiries into suspicious purchase card use and potential thefts. Supervisors refused to produce some key documents and altered others, he said. He claimed that supervisors warned him that they would gladly "sacrifice" investigators to protect the University of California's contract.
The lab fired both Walp and Doran in November after they reported the thefts and the alleged mismanagement became public knowledge. Walp said he was told that he did not "fit in" at the lab. "They were accurate about that," he added. "We were intent on doing our job with integrity."
When federal investigators substantiated Walp and Dolan's claims, the lab rehired them. The University of California appointed them as consultants to the Office of the President late Tuesday. They said the hearing did not influence the timing of the decision to rehire the two whistleblowers.
With one exception the managers who helped cover up the fraud and theft are still employed at Los Alamos, Walp told lawmakers. The top two security officials at the lab were reassigned in January as part of a series of high-level staff changes at the weapons facility.
Stan Busboom, head of the Los Alamos security division, and his deputy, Gene Tucker, were reassigned to nonmanagement positions because of "substantial criticism and concern" by oversight organizations, lab officials said. Both took part in the alleged cover-up scheme, according to Walp. The University of California should fire them, not simply demote them, to remain a credible contractor, Walp said.
Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said he scheduled the hearing in response to a report from the Energy Department's inspector general that substantiated many of the whistleblowers' claims.
The inspector general concluded that lab officials had created "an atmosphere where Los Alamos employees were discouraged from, or had reason to believe that they were discouraged from, raising concerns about property loss and theft, or other concerns, to appropriate authorities."
In the report (DOE/IG-0584), released in late January, the inspectors general included a tally of suspected stolen goods, with a collective value topping $1.5 million. The list included 204 desktop computers with a purchase value of $694,938; 12 cameras worth $11,318; and 27 radio transceivers worth $35,000. Investigators at Energy's Office of Inspector General and the FBI are trying to find the purportedly stolen items.
Greenwood noted that he finds it "astonishing" that a laboratory capable of developing the most advanced nuclear technology cannot develop an effective management system. He and other subcommittee members were concerned about getting to the bottom of the mismanagement issue because the University of California's contract for operating Los Alamos is up for renewal.
"I want to understand how Congress and taxpayers can be assured that tax dollars are not being abused and used for private purposes at Los Alamos," he said. "The work of the lab is too important to jeopardize with poor management."
In a Jan. 10 letter, Greenwood and Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked the General Accounting Office to investigate management practices at California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, two other Energy Department labs run by the University of California.