Feds to investigate possible cover-up by government contractor near Hanford

KING 5 Chief Investigative Reporter Susannah Frame reports on an investigation of alleged retaliation after a veteran lab manager said she was ousted from her job at a lab near Hanford.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s inspector general has agreed to investigate allegations of a cover-up and retaliation against a manager who wouldn’t go along at the Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) in Richland. 

A 30-year veteran of Batelle, the contractor that runs PNNL near Hanford, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Energy in June alleging whistleblower retaliation.

Aleta Busselman said she was ousted from her management position at the lab after failing to go along with lab superiors who wanted her to whitewash a mistake that cost the federal government more than a half million dollars in 2016.

“I’m an honest and ethical person, that’s what I’ve built my 30 plus year reputation on at the laboratory. So don’t put me in that job if that’s not what you want," said Busselman.

PNNL provides scientific input to Hanford’s multi-billion dollar cleanup of the country’s biggest nuclear waste dump located outside of Richland in Eastern Washington. The lab works on a host of other Dept. of Energy projects, in addition to their work for Hanford. 

According to the complaint, in December 2016 PNNL financial department employees were tricked into paying $530,000 to a company posing as a legitimate contractor to PNNL. Busselman’s team was tasked with getting to the bottom of how the expensive mistake happened. They found management didn’t have appropriate controls and practices in place to prevent theft by “external criminal entities.”

Busselman said some members of management were dissatisfied with her team’s assessment. According to official documents filed in June, the lab’s chief financial officer, Marty Conger, “began to exert pressure to change the language” in Busselman’s report. “He specifically told Ms. Busselman that the way the root cause was written would not put the Lab in a good light, and that the way it was written right now made them look like they were asleep at the wheel.”

A few days later Busselman expressed her concerns in a March 2017 email to lab director John LaFemina.

“…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,” wrote Busselman. “I am not going to make a team sign a product they can’t stand behind.”

The same day LaFemina responded “I understand your concerns” and that soon “I will bring us together to discuss our path forward.”

According to filing documents, when Busselman refused to go along, the next month management changed her team’s language in the report anyway and booted Busselman from her job.

“Ms. Busselman was removed from her job, put in an office with no windows, and given no new job responsibilities. She complained internally, she filed an employee concern, she emailed her management asking to be reinstated and that her team be protected, and when no action was taken to fix this problem, she filed this complaint,” said Busselman’s attorney Jack Sheridan.

“Taxpayers spend almost $1 billion per year to operate PNNL. In exchange, we expect operational integrity. Ms. Busselman filed this complaint to ensure that integrity trumps politics at PNNL,” said Sheridan.

Busselman is asking the U.S. Department of Energy to order Batelle to reinstate her to her former position and to protect the employees involved in the report to be protected from retaliation. She is also asking for monetary damages for “emotional harm, including but not limited to, loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, injury to reputation, fear, and humiliation.”

The Department of Energy has 180 days to respond to the complaint. If DOE denies the complaint or fails to act on it Busselman can file a lawsuit in federal court.

A spokesperson from PNNL sent this response to KING 5:

*       Several of the assertions made by Busselman and her attorney regarding her work environment and employment status are inaccurate, and Battelle (which manages PNNL for the federal government) takes exception to them.

*       There was no retaliation, as alleged.  PNNL and Battelle do not tolerate retaliation in the workplace and we take claims of this nature very seriously.  Retaliation was not at play here.

*       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.

*       It's important not to lose sight of the fact that PNNL was a victim of a crime.  People misrepresented themselves in a highly sophisticated attempt to steal more than a half million dollars from the Laboratory and those who fund it.

*       Once we became aware of the issue, Battelle reported it to DOE's Office of Inspector General.  The IG, with the help of other government entities, is investigating the matter and we are closely cooperating with them.

*       As a result of our critique of the incident, we are putting additional measures in place, and we are sharing results of our investigation with other national labs.

© 2017 KING-TV


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