Former Energy Northwest manager files whistleblower lawsuit

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 25, 2012 

A former Energy Northwest manager filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the agency, saying its security manager pulled his security access credentials in retaliation for questioning certain security procedures and actions.

Tension between Dave Sanders, the assistant maintenance manager for Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant, and Bruce Pease, who would become security force supervisor, started with a heated argument in October 2010, according to the lawsuit.

Within a week, each had one of their employees retain a badge after they left the site. But the maintenance employee incident, which happened first, was rated as a more serious issue than the subsequent security employee incident.

"Sanders and Pease should have had the same severity level for the actions of the employees working under them," court documents said. That Pease sought to minimize the conduct in his own organization was an intentional breach of nuclear security, Sanders alleged in the court documents.

In late winter 2011 the two men had a second disagreement, according to court documents.

Sanders sought to have the badging procedure changed for temporary employees who were being hired for a maintenance outage. Pease objected, but Sanders obtained permission for the change through his own chain of command, according to court documents.

"Once Pease learned that Sanders had succeeded in having the badging procedure changed, he said to Sanders that that was twice and he owed him one," court documents alleged.

Sanders maintains in court documents that Pease retaliated against him using the issue of per diem for an employee, his estranged daughter's boyfriend, Ricky Hayes. Sanders had asked Nelson Nuclear to hire Hayes to work for several weeks as a temporary employee during a maintenance outage in 2009.

Hayes had been working at Target in Kennewick for several months, but said South Carolina was his permanent address and requested South Carolina state taxes be withheld from his pay.

He worked for Energy Northwest for about five weeks, then returned to South Carolina. However, he then decided to move to Washington and eventually was hired as a permanent employee of Energy Northwest, according to court documents.

For the temporary job at Energy Northwest, he turned in background information saying he worked at Kennewick Target but was a resident of South Carolina, according to court documents. The information was reviewed four times within Pease's organization and approved, according to court documents.

Less than two weeks after the badging procedures disagreement, Hayes was called into a meeting with Pease, who had been promoted to security force supervisor, plus a technical specialist and a training supervisor.

They said Hayes should not have received per diem and Pease wrote a confession that Hayes signed, according to court documents. No union representative was present.

That day, Sanders was "interrogated" by the same three people, according to court documents. Sanders agreed that travel expenses from South Carolina should not have been authorized but said the other per diem payments were similar to those of other employees he named. None of the people Sanders identified was investigated, the court documents alleged.

Energy Northwest revoked Sanders access credentials after that meeting, although Sanders objected to the accuracy of the summary of the report drafted from the meeting, according to court documents. About three weeks later, he was fired for the stated reason of authorizing the per diem and travel expense payments to Hayes, according to court documents.

Rock Nelson, the owner of Nelson Nuclear, also had his access credentials to work at the nuclear power plant pulled a day after the meeting with Sanders. He was questioned by Pease, who said, "You're not giving me what I want. Give me your badge," court documents alleged. Nelson worked with Energy Northwest as a permanent employee in addition to owning Nelson Nuclear, which provided personnel to nuclear and DOE facilities.

Sanders initially filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor in September 2011 as required under the Energy Reorganization Act. After the Department of Labor made no decision within a year, his attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle, took the case to Eastern Washington U.S. District Court, as allowed by law.

Energy Northwest officials declined to comment on the federal court filing, which they had not seen Wednesday evening.

However, Energy Northwest officials "absolutely do not agree with claims made to the Department of Labor," said John Dobken, Energy Northwest spokesman. "We have vigorously defended our position to the Department of Labor and we're prepared to continue to defend our position."

Sanders is asking for a jury trial and seeking back pay, future pay, compensation for emotional harm, a comparable job at Energy Northwest and reinstatement of his security access credentials, which are a requirement for working at a U.S. nuclear plant. He has held access credentials, called unescorted access authorization, for 27 years, including the 19 years he worked at the nuclear power plant near Richland.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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