DOE nominee pledges to study whistleblowing policies

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldNovember 14, 2013 

The nominee for the Department of Energy's top legal position will conduct an independent study of how DOE and its contractors handle whistleblower complaints and lawsuits, he said Thursday during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Steven Croley, the nominee for DOE general counsel, also said he would respect the regional authority of the Bonneville Power Administration, under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the committee.

Wyden asked for the commitment to study whistleblower issues, saying that DOE has spent $1.75 million on contractor legal fees in cases brought by Hanford whistleblower Walt Tamosaitis with costs continuing to mount.

Cases brought by Tamosaitis against Hanford contractor Bechtel National, subcontractor URS and DOE were dismissed before reaching a jury, but are being appealed.

"I understand that the department and contractors have a right to defend themselves against lawsuits, but the department spends millions of dollars on cases challenging whistleblower claims, and worse, retaliation against whistleblowers," Wyden said.

Contractors may be reimbursed for their legal costs to defend cases.

DOE has policies in place to protect its employees and employees of contractors, such as those at Hanford, who raise safety or operation issues, Wyden said.

"My own view is these have come to look very ineffective," he said.

In October, Tamosaitis was laid off by URS, even though the concerns he raised three years ago were the focus of the entire safety culture investigation at Hanford by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Wyden said.

Tamosaitis believes he lost his position as research and technology manager at the $12.2 billion Hanford vitrification plant project in 2010 after raising questions about the safe and efficient operation of the plant.

However, Bechtel and URS, which employed Tamosaitis, said his work was ending and he was dismissed for writing a disrespectful email. A federal judge found that Bechtel, not URS, was responsible for removing Tamosaitis from the project.

Tamosaitis continued to work for URS, but has said he had limited assignments, until he was laid off. URS issued a statement saying it had reduced employment levels because of budgetary constraints and that Tamosaitis has not suffered retaliation.

The decision to lay off Tamosaitis came just days after Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz issued a department memo pledging to maintain a strong safety culture and listen to dissenting opinions, Wyden said.

Every independent group who looked at issues believed Tamosaitis had legitimate concerns, Wyden said.

"I think it's time to draw a line in the sand," Wyden said. If the message is that workers who "speak truth to power" will have problems, "it is going to be very detrimental to the safety agenda," he said.

If confirmed, Croley would oversee contractors' legal plans and costs as well as those of DOE, Wyden said.

Croley said he recognized the importance of creating an environment where employees can raise concerns. That is crucial to protect taxpayers and workers, he said.

Cantwell addressed another Hanford issue with Croley, asking him to work with her, Wyden and DOE to develop a plan to dispose of Hanford's high-level waste separate from commercial used nuclear fuel. Defense waste and commercial spent fuel had been planned to be sent to the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository, until the Obama administration shut down the project.

Cantwell has pushed to address defense and commercial waste separately as the Obama administration works on a new plan based on the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.

"We are on a trajectory where we are going to have defense waste ready to go somewhere and we don't want to have that be nowhere because we have to come up with a solution," Cantwell said at the hearing Thursday.

Cantwell also secured a commitment from Croley to respect the regional control of the Bonneville Power Administration.

DOE is asserting more control over BPA hiring decisions as a result of BPA discrimination against veterans and other job applicants. Under the change, DOE has authority over the hiring process, and its general counsel and staff report to DOE.

"I fully appreciate BPA's autonomy," Croley said. "It's my understanding that the department has no interest in affecting adversely that autonomy, but rather simply to provide a kind of support."

Wyden reaffirmed Cantwell's statements, saying discrimination against veterans is indefensible, but that "it cannot be used as a Trojan Horse to in effect micromanage Bonneville from Washington, D.C."

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

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