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Los Alamos Probe Widens to Include Two Other Labs

A House panel seeks inquiry at Bay Area sites also managed by UC. Changes at New Mexico facility continue as audit chief is reassigned.

January 14, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

One of several congressional committees looking into allegations of fraud and mismanagement at Los Alamos National Laboratory has widened its probe, calling on federal investigators to include an examination of the University of California's management practices at two other national labs.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has asked the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, to scrutinize the university's recent record at the Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs, both in the Bay Area. The university manages the three laboratories for the Department of Energy.

Los Alamos Director John C. Browne resigned last week amid investigations by the FBI, the Energy Department and Congress into mounting allegations of credit-card abuse, missing equipment and a possible cover-up at the New Mexico facility, the birthplace of nuclear weapons. The lab's deputy director and its top two security officials also have resigned or been reassigned.

On Monday, the shake-up at the troubled lab continued, with an announcement that the facility's audit director, Katherine Brittin, has been reassigned to a non-management position. In the near term, UC auditor Patrick Reed, who works from the university's systemwide headquarters in Oakland, will directly oversee the lab's audit program, while the various investigations move forward and the lab conducts a search for a new audit director.

The university is scrambling to hold onto its 60-year-old contract to run Los Alamos, which Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham warned recently has been jeopardized by the allegations of wrongdoing.

Abraham has ordered an evaluation of the university's management of Los Alamos, to be completed by late April, but he has not publicly questioned its ability to run the other facilities.

But interest in Congress is clearly growing.

In the announcement Monday, Energy and Commerce Committee members said they were concerned that the alleged problems of credit-card abuse and equipment theft might not be confined to Los Alamos.

They asked the GAO to look as well at the university's procurement practices during fiscal years 2001 and 2002 at Livermore, a nuclear weapon facility near Oakland, and Lawrence Berkeley, an energy research center in the Berkeley hills.

Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said questions about the other labs had come up in preliminary conversations with several former employees and whistle-blowers at the facilities.

Two former police officers who had been hired to investigate the allegations at Los Alamos were fired by lab officials in November and later claimed that the dismissals were part of an attempt to cover up the alleged wrongdoing.

The two men, Glenn A. Walp and Steven Doran, are expected to testify when the committee holds hearings in mid- to late February.

Johnson said the committee thus far has received 20 boxes of documents from Los Alamos and the university's external auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

He said it hopes to receive at least preliminary findings from the GAO's review within three months, before the April deadline set by Abraham.

In response to the announcement, UC spokesman Michael Reese said that the expansion of the investigation was "not unexpected" and that the university already had broadened its own management reviews to include the other laboratories.

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