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Alleged Abuses at Los Alamos Lab Detailed

Three whistle-blowers tell Congress of lax controls and suspected thefts by workers at the UC-run facility.

February 27, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For years, the Los Alamos National Laboratory operated under controls so lax that employees used the facility's purchasing system for unchecked personal shopping sprees -- buying armchairs, lawn mowers, boning knives and hunting outfits -- three whistle-blowers told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday.

Testifying before the investigations panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the whistle-blowers described an atmosphere in which dishonest employees operated with impunity at the lab managed by the University of California for the Department of Energy.

The Energy Department has said it will make a decision by April on whether to break its contract with the university to run both Los Alamos and its sister nuclear weapons lab, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near Oakland.

The witnesses included two former policemen who were hired to look into allegations of financial wrongdoing at Los Alamos, and a maintenance subcontractor. The three urged lawmakers to push for fundamental changes.

"I think it's time to gut the place," said former security officer Glenn Walp, who with fellow investigator Steven Doran was fired by the lab in November.

Both since have been rehired by UC to help with the investigations, and Doran agreed this week to a permanent position as UC's director of security.

"It is a culture that has been ingrained in that place for so long, it is time for change," said Walp, who estimated thefts in the "millions and millions" of dollars. "If they're serious about change, they need to get rid of the people who are still there."

Wednesday's hearing was expected to be the first of three by the subcommittee, which is scrutinizing allegations of theft, fraud and cover-up at the New Mexico laboratory, the birthplace of the nation's nuclear weapons program and guardian of its nuclear secrets.

Lawmakers listening to the three whistle-blowers, who testified on a panel together, expressed frustration and incredulity at the litany of problems at the lab, but stopped short of demanding that UC's contract be pulled.

Rep. Jim Greenwood, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the investigations panel, said after the hearing, however, that he favors competition for federal contracts.

Noting that UC has never had to compete for its contract to run the labs, he said, "That's just not a good way to do business, and we're seeing that now."

He and other lawmakers also asked the Energy Department's inspector general whether the department itself might bear a share of responsibility for the lab's problems.

"Yes, there certainly is shared responsibility," the official, Gregory Friedman, replied.

Friedman in January issued a report highly critical of UC's management, estimating that employees had stolen or lost at least $1.5 million in government property.

Testifying toward the end of the four-hour hearing, a top UC official apologized to the committee -- and the public -- for the university's problems at Los Alamos.

The management failures "detract from the very real and valuable contributions that thousands of Los Alamos scientists, technicians and support personnel are making to our nation ... and we regret what has taken place," UC Senior Vice President Bruce Darling told the subcommittee.

Darling detailed steps the university has taken in recent months to try to resolve the problems, including the replacement or reassignment of 15 top managers.

He also said he believes the problems were confined to Los Alamos, which he said has suffered from lax leadership in recent years, and did not extend to Livermore or other UC-managed facilities.

Some of the most dramatic testimony came from Jaret McDonald, who works for one of the lab's subcontracting firms, overseeing a staff of maintenance and construction employees.

Congressional investigators have said McDonald apparently was the first person -- beginning in September 2001 -- to try to bring what he believed were numerous inappropriate purchases to the attention of lab managers. When his accounts were ignored, McDonald said, he contacted the FBI, which launched an investigation.

Lawmakers watched as McDonald displayed photographs of items -- including television sets, sleeping bags, ice chests, armchairs, fishing gear and lawn mowers -- that he said he discovered stashed in various storage facilities around the Los Alamos grounds. McDonald said he did not know any possible legitimate use for many of the items.

One time, he said, he asked an employee about a supply of aluminum tubing, noting that the lab used only steel tubing.

"I was told that a man had used it to build a go-cart for his nephews," McDonald said.

The whistle-blowers were specific in assigning responsibility to particular individuals at the lab, some of whom remain on staff.

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