The Department of Energy Office of Inspector General plans an independent investigation into allegations of retaliation against a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employee.
Aleta Busselman was removed from her position after she declined to make changes to a report that blamed management for a $530,000 theft of government money, according to a legal complaint. The DOE national lab in Richland was tricked into making the substantial payment into a fraudulent bank account.
The Office of Inspector General on Wednesday notified Jack Sheridan, Busselman’s Seattle attorney, that it plans to investigate, including interviewing witnesses and analyzing documents.
“We are very pleased that the inspector general is moving forward with the investigation,” Sheridan said. “The sooner they investigate, the sooner Ms. Busselman can be reinstated into her position and policies will be put in place to protect her and her department from improper pressure from management to change expert findings.”
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Sheridan filed a complaint with the Office of Inspector General last month. The filing, under a federal whistleblower law that covers government contractors, could result in PNNL being required to reinstate her or could allow her to pursue a case in federal court after 210 days.
PNNL also received notification of the planned investigation by the Office of Inspector General.
Based on the facts as we understand them, the assertions made by Busselman and her attorney regarding her work environment and employment status are inaccurate, and Battelle takes exception to them.
Greg Koller, PNNL spokesman
“We’ve responded, indicating we’re looking forward to working with them,” said PNNL spokesman Greg Koller.
“Our position continues to be that — based on the facts as we understand them — the assertions made by Busselman and her attorney regarding her work environment and employment status are inaccurate, and Battelle takes exception to them,” Koller said.
Battelle holds the DOE contract to manage and operate PNNL.
Assertions regarding the report at issue also are inaccurate, Koller said. PNNL has not detailed what it specifically believes to be inaccurate.
Busselman, as the lab’s enforcement coordinator, was responsible for the report prepared for DOE, called a root cause analysis, determining what caused PNNL to fall victim to the fraud in late 2016.
PNNL was notified by email in November that it needed to change the bank account its construction contractor used to receive payments for the Collaboration Center being built on PNNL’s Richland campus.
PNNL is supported by taxpayer dollars, and we demand integrity in the operation of our national labs.
Jack Sheridan, attorney
PNNL deposited the next payment of $530,000 to the new account. But the account was fraudulent and was emptied shortly after the payment was made.
Busselman’s team looked into Battelle’s response to the request to change the bank account. The team concluded that management did not clearly set controls to detect fraud in its vendor program, instead relying on staff members to identify and respond to potential threats.
Sheridan said PNNL management was not satisfied with the draft report, and one high-level manager told Busselman that the language in the report made management look bad and would not reflect well on PNNL.
Busselman left on vacation and when she returned, found that the report had been changed and that she had been removed from her position, according to Sheridan.
Busselman’s goal is to be reinstated and to have her team protected from further efforts to manipulate their findings, Sheridan said.
“PNNL is supported by taxpayer dollars, and we demand integrity in the operation of our national labs,” he said.