PNNL whistleblower claims retaliation. She's suing over her $530,000 fraud investigation

Manager files complaint against PNNL with DOE Office of Inspector General

PNNL manager Aleta Busselman makes a statement about the whistleblower complaint she filed with her attorney Jack Sheridan against the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Busselman is accusing the contractor operating the Richland lab of retali
Up Next
PNNL manager Aleta Busselman makes a statement about the whistleblower complaint she filed with her attorney Jack Sheridan against the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Busselman is accusing the contractor operating the Richland lab of retali

A Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employee has filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying she lost her management position after investigating fraud that cost the lab $530,000.

Aleta Busselman was demoted after she refused to change a report that blamed laboratory management for not having adequate policies to prevent the lab from being tricked into making a payment to a fraudulent bank account, said court documents.

Busselman's attorney Jack Sheridan filed a complaint in May with the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

When it had taken no action by Tuesday, Sheridan exercised his client's right under federal whistleblower law to file a complaint in federal court.

Battelle will vigorously defend the case in court if necessary, said Battelle spokesman Greg Koller. The lawsuit is filed against Battelle, which holds the contract to manage and operate the Department of Energy national lab in in Richland.

"There was no retaliation as alleged," Koller said.

Aleta Busselman mug
Aleta Busselman Tri-City Herald

Busselman remains employed at the lab in a project management position within PNNL's National Security Directorate, he said.

Busselman is suing to be reinstated to her former position as a division director managing an investigative team, plus money for emotional harm.

She also is asking a federal judge to order changes at the lab, including management training to prevent retaliation and a prohibition against management pressure to influence similar PNNL investigations.

Busselman, as the lab's enforcement coordinator, was responsible for a report prepared for DOE, called a root cause analysis, determining what caused DOE to fall victim to the fraud.

The fraud was related to PNNL's new $9.8 million Discovery Hall, initially called the Collaboration Center, which will be dedicated on Monday.

The building's construction contract was awarded to Fowler General Construction of Richland, which received periodic payments for the work.

On Nov. 8, 2016, PNNL received an email telling officials to change the bank account for Fowler's electronic payments.

PNNL then sent the next Fowler payment of $530,000 from the U.S. Treasury 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.

An investigation showed that the new bank account was not associated with Fowler.

The account had been emptied shortly after the payment was made.

Busselman and her team were asked to investigate issues around the payments.

Aleta Busselman complaint
PNNL manager Aleta Busselman, right, stands with her attorney Jack Sheridan last June outside the Federal Building in Richland after a news conference. They announced she had filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General against Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Watch video at Tri-City Herald file

Team members go through formal training, get vetted, are approved by a board of management and then may spend a year or more of on-the-job training before being considered a qualified cause analyst, according to the lawsuit.

After the team filed its report critical of management, managers sought to water down the report's findings, according to the lawsuit.

One manager said that the report made them look like they were "asleep at the wheel," according to the lawsuit

Busselman pushed back, trying to protect her staff from being pressured to change its report.

She wrote to a lab director that "this is not how we do cause analysis at our lab. We do not just let concerned stakeholders manipulate root causes at the end of the process to make us sound better," according to the lawsuit.

Busselman went on a scheduled vacation April 1. When she returned, she was told she was no longer the manager of the investigative team.

"No reasonable explanation was given for the decision," the lawsuit said.

The report on the cause of the $530,000 fraud was changed over Busselman's objections.

Statements were removed that questioned separation of certain duties in the department making the payment, and also that said some staff felt their work load was affecting the completeness and accuracy of their work.

Other removed parts talked about training and how familiar a relatively new accounts payable manager was with vendors.

Management's actions to change the report violated PNNL policy, and changes were made by people not trained to investigate, the lawsuit said.

Busselman had created a formal written procedure that prohibited managers from making substantive changes to reports and provided a process in the event of a dispute, the lawsuit said.

"Several of the assertions made by Ms. Busselman's attorney regarding events surrounding the causal analysis, her work environment and employment status are inaccurate," Koller said.

It is common for vigorous debate to occur as analyses go through reviews and as people who have more information weigh in, he said.

Before the fraud investigation, Busselman had asked to return to a position in a research directorate, Koller said. Management had been working with her for some time to find another position.

The lawsuit said that when Busselman was removed from her position, she was pressured to lie to her team, telling them she had input into the decision to give up leadership of the team and was pursuing a "great opportunity."

There was no great opportunity, the lawsuit said.

Busselman has been looking for meaningful work at the laboratory, but has been met with constant barriers and rejections because of her high rate of pay and the tense environment at the lab, the lawsuit said.

It says she as been "humiliated over and over again" as colleagues ask why she is no longer a division director and why she is looking for work.

She has worked for PNNL for 30 years.

Busselman has been encouraged to downgrade her manager role to a specialist role with lower pay to help her find a new job, the lawsuit said.

Battelle does not tolerate retaliation and takes retaliation claims very seriously, Koller said.

It's important that people not lose sight of the fact that Battelle and PNNL were the victims of a $530,000 fraud, he said.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @Hanfordnews