A string of emails among Hanford officials has raised questions about whether the Department of Energy was involved in discussions that led to the firing of a top-level vitrification plant official.
The official, Walt Tamosaitis, has filed a whistleblower case in Benton County Superior Court, claiming he was transferred from his position as research and technology manager for the $12.2 billion vitrification plant at Hanford in retaliation for raising safety and technical concerns.
A day after Bechtel National claimed to meet its June 30, 2010, contract requirements for resolving technical issues related to safe operations of the vit plant, Tamosaitis questioned Bechtel's claims, the lawsuit alleges.
Bechtel needed to meet the deadline to earn much of a $6 million payment from DOE.
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DOE has said it does not become involved in contractor personnel issues at Tamosaitis' level, and DOE project director Dale Knutson said in a legal document that he did not direct Bechtel National or URS to take any specific action with regard to Tamosaitis.
Bechtel is the DOE contractor building the vitrification plant, and URS is its primary subcontractor and Tamosaitis' employer.
However, emails obtained during court discovery by Tamosaitis' attorney, Jack Sheridan, show Knutson was involved in discussions, Hanford Challenge has alleged.
URS said in a court document that Tamosaitis sent an email with inappropriate comments to independent consultants on the project, which upset DOE and led to him being escorted from his building a day later.
In that email, Tamosaitis forwarded an email from Frank Russo, Bechtel project director, congratulating staff on clearing technical hurdles on the plant. Tamosaitis included his own comments in the forward, saying that it looked like "no matter what people tell you" experts had bought into the technical solutions so a technical issue was being closed.
A copy of Tamosaitis' July 1 email, which Bechtel called "very derogatory," was forwarded to Knutson the same day.
Knutson responded in an email to Russo that, "Walt does not speak for DOE." He also wrote, "Please use this message as you see fit to accelerate staffing changes ..."
URS has indicated in legal documents that it had planned to reassign Tamosaitis, but that the reassignment was done ahead of schedule because Bechtel was upset about Tamosaitis' email.
Within minutes, Russo forwarded the "accelerate staffing changes" memo from DOE to Tamosaitis' boss at URS, Bill Gay.
"Walt is killing us," Russo said. "Get him in your corporate office today."
URS indicated in legal documents that a meeting had been scheduled with Tamosaitis on the next day, July 2, to discuss the transition of research and technology group personnel, and that Tamosaitis would be put on temporary assignment at the vit plant overseeing the group.
But when Tamosaitis showed up for the meeting, instead of discussing the new job, he was told to turn in his badge and phone and was escorted from the building.
He continues to work for URS but with no meaningful work and in a basement office that he shares with copy machines, according to court documents filed by Sheridan.
The string of emails concluded July 5 with a message from Gay to a URS corporate official that started with, "This email was the straw that broke ......" It ended with, "This action was initiated by Dale Knudsen (sic) probably not knowing the sensitivity."
Initially, DOE said Tamosaitis' removal was a natural and planned evolution of his work scope and that DOE was not involved in the decision to remove him, Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, said in a statement. "The new evidence reveals a retaliatory culture," he added.
The Herald asked to speak with Knutson to hear his side of the story, but DOE instead issued a statement saying its policy "is not to dictate these kinds of contractor employment decisions."
DOE had no further comment because of the ongoing litigation, according to the statement.
"The wheels were in motion for this transfer," said Suzanne Heaston, Bechtel spokeswoman. "I don't think anything would alter that."
As technical issues were being resolved at the vit plant, jobs related to them were decreasing, she said. It was routine for highly paid, high-level managers to be relocated to corporate offices until they received their next assignment, she said.
URS indicated in a legal document that it began discussing the transition of workers in Tamosaitis' group as early as May 2009, and that Tamosiatis knew that as design of the vit plant was completed there would be no more work.
Russo had decided it was time for Tamosaitis to leave the project before Tamosaitis sent the email that upset DOE, and on July 1 he said that Tamosaitis would no longer be paid from the vitrification plant budget, according to an email from Russo.
Bechtel thought then that a job was available for Tamosaitis on a Bechtel project in Sellafield in the United Kingdom, Heaston said.
URS said in a legal document that it had been unsuccessful in finding him an assignment with the possible exception of an opportunity at Sellafield. Until -- and if -- that job became available, it planned to temporarily assign him to oversee the research and technology group.
Tamosaitis' understanding was that he would stay in charge of the same group, which would essentially continue to do the same work, but that it would shift to another building, said his attorney.
Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.