Report highlights possible discrimination at weapons labs

Minorities and women at three Energy Department weapons labs may have been victims of discrimination, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

Minorities and women at three Energy Department weapons labs may have been victims of discrimination, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

From fiscal 1998 to fiscal 2000, minorities and women employed at the nation's three weapons laboratories-Lawrence Livermore in California and Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico-were promoted less often and paid less than white men, and rarely given cash awards, according to GAO's report, "DOE Weapons Laboratories: Actions Needed to Strengthen EEO Oversight" (GAO-02-391). The labs are run by contractors.

Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and David Wu, D-Ore., requested the report after Chinese workers at Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Laboratory said they were targeted for security investigations because of their ethnicity. Johnson chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Wu heads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

The racial profiling allegations arose following the 1999 case of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American accused of stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos. Lee, who claimed the government targeted him because of his race, was fired for allegedly downloading nuclear information to unsecured computer tapes. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling nuclear secrets.

According to Johnson, the report "paints a disturbing picture of inconsistency in the way minorities and women are treated."

"The fact that these differences exist at federal institutions is very troubling to me," Johnson said during a press conference Monday announcing the report's results. "We have laws that encourage equality and diversity in the workforce. The federal labs should serve as a model to other public and private employers, and in this case, they simply don't."

Earlier this month, President Bush signed legislation making federal agencies more accountable for discrimination and retaliation against employees. The Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2001 (No FEAR) requires agencies that lose or settle discrimination and whistleblower cases to pay judgments out of their own budgets. Prior to No FEAR, those judgments were paid out of a general government fund.

During its investigation, GAO also found discrepancies in how one laboratory was rated on its equal employment opportunity activities. In 1999, the Energy Department gave Sandia an "outstanding" rate for its EEO performance, while the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which investigates employee discrimination complaints and is responsible for enforcing EEO compliance with contractors, cited Sandia for failing to increase the number of minority and women employees at the lab.

To improve the situation, GAO recommended that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham work with the Labor Department to ensure that the laboratories comply with EEO requirements. In a written response to GAO, Energy officials said that Abraham was committed to ensuring all the department's officials are treated fairly.

Johnson pledged to closely monitor the department's progress.

"Just as the civil rights movement in America is not over, Congress' oversight of this issue is not complete," she said. "We will monitor the DOE's actions and hold them accountable for their future performance."