A Pacific Northwest National Laboratory manager is accusing the contractor operating the Richland lab of retaliation after the manager refused to change a report that blamed lab management for a $530,000 theft of government money.
The Department of Energy national lab was tricked into making the substantial payment into a fraudulent bank account.
PNNL employee Aleta Busselman declined to make changes to a report looking at how the lab was fooled and ended up removed from her position, assigned to an office with no windows and given no job duties, said her attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle.
She is at risk of losing her job Oct. 1.
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Sheridan filed a complaint with the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General on Wednesday. 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.
“Her goal is to have the DOE IG order that she be reinstated and that her team be protected from further efforts to manipulate their findings,” Sheridan said.
“Ms. Busselman has invested 30 years in this company,” Sheridan said. “She loves her job and her company. She filed this complaint to ensure that PNNL management lives up to her belief that Battelle is an ethical company that works in the public interest, and to ensure that integrity trumps politics at PNNL.”
Battelle holds the DOE contract to manage and operate PNNL.
She filed this complaint to ensure that PNNL management lives up to her belief that Battelle is an ethical company that works in the public interest, and to ensure that integrity trumps politics at PNNL.
Jack Sheridan, attorney
Busselman, as the lab’s enforcement coordinator, was responsible for a report prepared for DOE, called a root cause analysis, determining what caused PNNL to fall victim to the fraud.
She and her staff are highly trained to conduct analyses, Sheridan said.
“I just want the truth to be told so that PNNL scientists and engineers can continue to do all of the great things that they do for the world,” Busselman said at a news conference. “I want to make sure we continue to provide a cost effective, honest and ethical environment.
PNNL said there was no retaliation.
“It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that PNNL was a victim of a crime,” said PNNL spokesman Greg Koller. “People misrepresented themselves in a highly sophisticated attempt to steal more than a half million dollars from the laboratory and those who fund it.”
The fraud was related to a $9.8 million Collaboration Center being built on the PNNL campus that could open by late 2017.
The contract to build the center on PNNL’s Richland campus was awarded to Fowler General Construction of Richland, which is receiving periodic payments for the work..
On Nov. 8, 2016, PNNL received an email instructing officials to change the bank account for Fowler’s electronic payments. PNNL complied and issued the next Fowler payment of $530,000 to the new bank account on Dec. 16.
The next month, Fowler’s controller called PNNL to say the company had not received the payment.
The perpetrator was able to maneuver through a host of established checks and balances within our system.
Greg Koller, PNNL spokesman
An investigation showed that the new bank account was not associated with Fowler, and the account had been emptied shortly after the payment was made.
“The perpetrator was able to maneuver through a host of established checks and balances within our system,” Koller said. The request to change bank accounts passed verification tests both at PNNL and the banks, he said.
Battelle is responsible for implementing effective procedures to combat fraud. Since the incident additional checks have been added to verification procedures, including verbal conversations with vendors before changes are made, Koller said. About a dozen requests a week are received.
PNNL’s system to verify changes was consistent with other national labs at the time it was defrauded, and information about the fraud has been shared with the other labs, Koller said.
“Taxpayers spend almost $1 billion per year to operate PNNL,” Sheridan said. “In exchange, we expect operational integrity.”
Busselman assigned a team of her staff members to analyze one part of the fraud, Battelle’s response to the request to change the bank account.
The Office of the Inspector General and the Justice Department also are investigating to determine how the information to make the change request was obtained by the thief. The investigation is still in progress.
It is common for vigorous debate to occur as causal analyses go through reviews, and as people who have additional facts and info weigh in. That’s what occurred here.
Greg Koller, PNNL spokesman
The report Busselman’s staff prepared concluded that Business Systems Directorate 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. It also listed shortcomings that were found.
PNNL management was not satisfied with the findings in the draft report completed in March, according to Sheridan. One high level manager told Busselman that the language in the report made management look bad and would not reflect well on PNNL.
Over several days in March, Busselman attended meetings and exchanged emails with other PNNL management, trying to protect her staff from changing the report.
In one email she wrote, “I am not going to make this team sign a product they can’t stand behind.”
“It is common for vigorous debate to occur as causal analyses go through reviews, and as people who have additional facts and info weigh in,” Koller said. “That’s what occurred here.”
Busselman left on a scheduled vacation, returning on April 10 to find that she had been removed from her position, according to Sheridan.
Sheridan said the report, as released in April, was changed by management.
“It defeats the purpose of a root cause analysis to let lay persons input into root cause findings, but when management seeks to change a root cause finding that points to management’s failures, it’s also a conflict of interest,” Sheridan said.
Koller said the lab’s director of planning and performance, rather than Busselman, had the final responsibility for the root cause analysis. Busselman’s rule was to facilitate reviews and approvals of the analysis, he said.
The new root cause analysis no longer included certain statements, including one about the segregation of duties and another about a training process that did not include the practice of confirming vendor changes.
It defeats the purpose of a root cause analysis to let lay persons input into root cause findings, but when management seeks to change a root cause finding that points to management’s failures, it’s also a conflict of interest.
Jack Sheridan, attorney
Busselman was initially told after she returned from vacation that a reorganization was underway and that there was a potential opportunity for her, according to Sheridan.
By May 1 it became evident that there was no opportunity, and she was told that she needed to find another open position at the lab by Oct. 1 or would lose employment, according to Sheridan.
“Ms. Busselman has been humiliated over and over again on a daily basis as her 30-year network of professional relationships at the laboratory ask her ‘What happened with our division director role?’” according to the complaint filed by Sheridan.
Busselman has been encouraged to downgrade her manager status to specialist status to help her find new work at the lab, according to Sheridan.
On Monday, Busselman was offered another position within PNNL, but declined it because it would not resolve the issue of whether management can change root cause analyses it disagrees with or protect her team.
The offer came after Sheridan made a final request that she be reinstated to her previous job, before he filed a complaint with the DOE Office of Inspector General, Sheridan said.
Koller said that several of the assertions made by Busselman and her attorney about her work environment and employment status are inaccurate.
He declined to give examples saying the news media is not the venue to share that information.
“Retaliation was not at play here,” he said. “PNNL and Battelle do not tolerate retaliation in the workplace and we take claims of this nature very seriously.”
PNNL has had other problems with fraud since at least 2015, according to the legal document prepared by Sheridan.
Consumer electronics have been ordered using the name of the PNNL procurement director, and about 10 vendors have shipped consumer goods to parties not associated with PNNL, the document said.