Former Hanford worker pleads guilty to timecard fraud

YAKIMA -- A former Hanford worker has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the federal government after admitting being paid at least $90,000 for overtime he falsely claimed.

Christian Careaga made his first appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Yakima.

He is the second Hanford worker to plead guilty after a federal investigation of timecard fraud at the Hanford tank farms under former contractor CH2M Hill Hanford Group. The tank farms store 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks until the waste left from weapons plutonium production can be treated for disposal.

Careaga may be required to pay a fine of up to $90,000. Court documents do not make clear whether the fine covers overtime pay only for hours not worked or all his claimed overtime.

His sentencing is set for May 17. He has agreed not to appeal his sentence if the federal judge imposes a prison term of less than 16 months, probation of less than two years and a fine under $90,000.

But the Department of Justice has agreed to request a sentence below the standard minimum to reflect Careaga's substantial help with the investigation and prosecution of timecard fraud.

Careaga, 46, worked for CH2M Hill Hanford Group as a radiological control technician from 1999 to October 2008 and claimed about 2,250 hours ofovertime. CH2M Hill was reimbursed by the Department of Energy for its labor costs.

When Careaga began work, he learned that it was the practice for workers assigned to overtime to claim a full eight hours of overtime rather than the hours actually worked. His fellow radiological control technicians and other hourly employees at the tank farms did not work full eight-hour overtime shifts, but timecards for eight hours of overtime were routinely approved, according to the plea agreement.

The direct supervisors of the radiological control technicians would indicate when they were leaving work to signal to employees that they also could leave work while claiming the full eight hours, according to the plea agreement. Supervisors would say things like, "Why are you still here?" as they left work, according to the plea agreement.

Due in part to safety concerns, radiological control technicians were not allowed to work more than 72 hours a week. To ensure hours reported did not go over 72 hours, workers were told to report extra hours on the next week's timecard, according to the plea agreement.

One time when overtime work was completed in about two hours, two supervisors told Careaga and other workers to report a full eight-hour shift, according to the plea agreement.

Supervisors told workers that paying for a full eight hours was a practice condoned by contractor management to provide a bonus to workers, according to the agreement.

However, the practice of claiming additional hours was not reduced to writing and was contrary to CH2M Hill's written procedures, according to the agreement.

"In fact, it was further accepted practice at CH2M Hill to engage in patterns designed to avoid the detection of the timecard fraud scheme and conspiracy by law enforcement or CH2M Hill internal auditors," the plea agreement said.

When law enforcement discovered the timecard fraud, Careaga was told by other workers not to provide information to special agents of the DOE Office of Inspector General, who were investigating, according to the plea agreement.

He also was told by a fellow worker and union steward that he should not directly implicate other workers and those workers already suspected should take the full blame, according to the agreement.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.