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A Whistle-Blower's Tale : The Struggle Between the Urge to Do What Conscience Dictates and What Life Style and Pocketbook Require

November 27, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The term whistle-blower doesn't pass easily from David Navarette's lips. Left to choose his own term for the role he has played at the U.S. government's Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant here since 1985, he says, he would prefer informer .

What Navarette did was bring attention to what he says was a secret trinket factory run at government expense in a department supposed to concentrate on mock-ups of nuclear bombs, laser weapons and other top-secret projects.

The trinket factory, Navarette told Rockwell International Corp. (which runs the facility for the U.S. Department of Energy), the Justice Department and the FBI, improperly turned out tens of thousands of commemorative items and other goods that were distributed as rewards to government and corporate officials or diverted for private use by the factory's manager.

Items Shipped Nationwide

The products were shipped all over the country--with the greatest volume apparently destined for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California--and the bounty included plaques, medals, coffee mugs, baseball hats and desk sets, in addition to grandfather clocks, a liquor still and souvenir maple foot massagers.

By exposing the factory, Navarette said, he was--and still is--placed in a form of professional solitary confinement, removed from the specialized weapons-drafting work he had found challenging since high school. And his personal toll was a marriage on the brink and a mind never at ease.

"It isn't easy for me, a non-degreed type person, to walk out and find another job that paid as well," Navarette, 49, said. "I think about that. You're stuck. You're caught. A lot of us were.

"You probably think about it more at night when you're sitting at home talking to your kids about when they might have had a little problem of theft, or something like that. It goes through your mind. 'Here I'm talking to my child about how wrong it is to steal . . . to take someone else's property . . . and I'm involved in it. I'm doing it.' You almost shut up, which I think I did."

Although the local U.S. attorney's office declined to bring criminal charges, Navarette has filed suit in U.S. District Court here alleging that the secret trinket factory involved the misspending of as much as $10 million.

Defendants Named

The suit, filed under provisions of a recently revised Civil War-era federal law that permits citizen whistle-blowers to share in money settlements in civil-fraud cases, names as defendants Rockwell, Livermore, former model shop manager Warren Rooker, Livermore's associate director A. Carl Haussman and John Emmett, director of Livermore's laser problems. Rockwell and the Department of Engergy would not comment on the case.

If he wins his lawsuit, Navarette stands to gain several hundred thousand dollars as a result of making public the questionable enterprise in which he participated. The court action was filed under seal May 22 and remained under seal until late July when a statutory 60-day secrecy period expired during which government attorneys were able to begin determining if they would join in Navarette's court action. A final decision has not yet been made.

The lawsuit is also one of the first three actions brought under the False Claims Act, which could open a new era of disclosure of government waste and fraud, according to the prominent Los Angeles public-interest lawyer largely responsible for the new federal law and a companion California statute that goes into effect Jan. 1. The state law will apply to every government entity in California, irrespective of level.

The law will be, said attorney John Phillips who heads the West Los Angeles-based Center for Law in the Public Interest, the quintessential application of free-enterprise principles--in which citizen-bounty hunters are empowered to sue for billions of dollars in alleged waste without waiting for government bureaucracies to act.

It will also have the potential for chaos, Phillips said, because such litigious intensity is bound to bring with it a raft of frivolous, vengeful cases, as well as thousands of legitimate ones. Its success, he said, will depend on people whose motives and conduct may themselves not be pristine.

David Navarette is such a man. His story is one of conflict--personal and interpersonal--and of the pragmatically familiar struggle between the urge to do what conscience dictates and what life style and pocketbook require.

Navarette said without hesitation that he went along, quietly and for the most part willingly, with what was happening for more than a decade--and even returned to the trinket factory after once resigning.

Sitting in the kitchen of their home in the Denver suburb of Northglenn, Navarette and his second wife, Sonja, chain-smoked cigarettes and talked about how he got where he is today.

Marriage and Children

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