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Ex-Los Alamos Lab Boss Denies Impeding Probe

Facility is "not a den of thieves," fired director says. Internal controls were weak, he admits.

March 13, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

The former second-ranking executive of Los Alamos National Laboratory on Wednesday denied allegations by two former police officers that he and other lab managers had blocked their efforts to investigate theft and other alleged improprieties at the nuclear weapons lab. He also told a congressional subcommittee that his decision to fire the two men was justified.

Testifying in Washington before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations panel, Joseph Salgado said the lab is "not a den of thieves" and does not harbor a culture of crime, despite what he described as its weak internal controls and recent cases of alleged theft and credit card abuse. Investigators say that at least tens of thousands of dollars may be involved.

Salgado, the lab's former principal deputy director, was making his first public comments about allegations of theft and mismanagement that have enveloped the weapons lab in recent months. Salgado was fired in January by the University of California, which runs the lab for the Energy Department.

The department has said it will decide by April whether to break UC's 60-year-old management contract.

Problems at Los Alamos worsened significantly in November when the two investigators, Glenn Walp and Steve Doran, were dismissed by the lab and went public with claims that Salgado and other top officials had tried to block their attempts to uncover wrongdoing. On Wednesday, Salgado said that allegations of obstruction are "absolutely not true."

Salgado acknowledged that federal dollars were treated at the lab almost "like Monopoly money," with employees spending freely on such morale-boosters as T-shirts or bringing in expensive meals. But he said he believed cases of actual wrongdoing were limited to a few, such as employees using lab funds or credit cards for personal items.

Other current or former top managers at the New Mexico lab, such as former Director John Browne, legal counsel Frank Dickson and former Security Director Stan Busboom, also testified Wednesday. All denied personal wrongdoing, and several disputed assertions that they were aware of corruption and ignored it.

Subcommittee members asked tough questions, particularly of Salgado, and said they were outraged by what they had heard of the lab's problems. But the legislators, while urging a continuing overhaul of the lab's top management, did not demand that the university's contract be pulled.

"There was a dereliction of duty here," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Atherton) told Salgado. "You knew what was going wrong but you didn't do anything about it."

A former police officer and county prosecutor, Salgado said he fired Walp and Doran because they provided "incomplete and inaccurate information" to lab managers about their investigations. The two men also incorrectly accused another employee of obstructing justice, he said.

But he admitted that he never followed up on a statement made to him by a member of the U.S. attorney's staff in Albuquerque that the lab "had blown" its investigation of an alleged attempt by a former employee to buy a Ford Mustang with her lab credit card.

Salgado said he assumed the reference was to mistakes made in that case by Walp and Doran, but never pursued it.

UC has rehired the two men, given them back pay and apologized for their November dismissals. Reached at his New Mexico home, Doran said the testimony "shows, once again, that our terminations were a cover-up. They fired us to keep us from doing our jobs."

UC Senior Vice President Bruce Darling, testifying before the panel for the second time, again accepted responsibility for failures at the lab and detailed a series of reforms being made.

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