A Department of Energy investigation into the contentious firing of a Hanford nuclear waste site official met initial resistance from some of the government's biggest contractors.
Little more than a month into the probe, DOE Inspector General Gregory Friedman alerted Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to problems he was running into with URS Corp. and Bechtel Corp. -- two contracting giants that are working at the site. Friedman said in an April 9 memorandum obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act that the two companies were not consenting to interviews regarding his investigation of whistleblower Donna Busche's termination.
"Unfortunately, the firms representing URS and BNI [Bechtel] have been slow in cooperating with our requests to schedule interviews with specific employees," Friedman wrote. "Of the 23 interviews we have requested, we have only been able to interview 3 employees."
The watchdog was frustrated by the contractors' lack of cooperation -- a sentiment he wanted to convey to the secretary who requested the Busche investigation in March.
"In the interest of bringing this important matter to a timely conclusion, we find the responses from both URS and BNI and their attorneys to be unacceptable," Friedman wrote.
The IG would win this battle with URS and Bechtel. The two companies eventually granted the interviews requested of them for the investigation.
"We ultimately interviewed URS and BNI officials with the cooperation of the department," said Tara Porter, a spokeswoman for the DOE IG.
Nevertheless, Friedman's memo foreshadowed further friction between the IG and the contractors. Last month, the inspector general would throw his hands up and declare that he couldn't make a judgment on Busche's firing after not receiving requested documents from URS and Bechtel (Greenwire, Oct. 20).
Watchdog groups have been frustrated by DOE's response to the firing of an official who raised safety concerns at the nation's largest nuclear waste site.
"When push comes to shove, they're not going to hold these contractors accountable," said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a public interest organization that monitors the site. "People at Hanford roll their eyes and say if you're a whistleblower, you can't win."
Busche "is a talented safety professional who had her brilliant career terminated," added Carpenter.
Initial problems in the IG investigation of Busche's firing were reported by Weapons Complex Monitor earlier this year. The public release of Friedman's memo, however, shows the extent of the obstacles that were in front of the IG and that Moniz himself had knowledge early on of the probe's rough start.
A DOE spokeswoman noted the secretary requested the investigation and said "fostering a questioning, safety-driven attitude among our federal and contractor employees is key to achieving our mission and safely delivering this important project."
"The department acted promptly to produce all requested information in its possession and regrets that the IG could not complete its review and provide an opinion," said the DOE spokeswoman.
The contractors in question said they granted the interviews requested of them after Friedman wrote his memo.
"We granted all interviews requested by the U.S. Department of Energy inspector general," said a URS spokeswoman, adding the company believes that Busche's claim "is without merit" and that URS has "a strong safety record and our corporate culture makes safety our highest priority."
Fred deSousa, a spokesman for Bechtel, referred Greenwire to the company's statement released last month in response to the IG's move to not issue a decision on Busche's firing.
That statement said the company "went above and beyond in cooperating with the Inspector General's investigation," providing documents and interviews to the watchdog. It also noted that Busche was a URS employee and the decision to fire her was made by that company alone.
But a month after the IG decided against weighing in, representatives for Busche are angered by the lack of consequences for Hanford contractors.
"It seems to me that if we were party to a contract where we were being paid millions and millions of dollars, we would respond promptly to any concerns," said Richard Condit, senior counsel for the Government Accountability Project and one of the lawyers representing Busche.
"These two contractors don't seem to have any regard for those obligations at all," Condit said. "That's very troubling from a transparency standpoint, from a taxpayer standpoint."
'Deeply frustrated' on Capitol Hill
Lawmakers, too, are not happy with DOE's response to the treatment of Busche and other whistleblowers.
"We're deeply frustrated with DOE and are pushing them to stop dragging their feet on taking steps to hold these contractors accountable," said Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
McCaskill, the outgoing head of the Financial and Contracting Oversight Committee, wrote an. Oct. 20 letter to Moniz requesting a briefing on the Busche investigation -- the same day the DOE IG released his decision not to make a judgement in the case.
The DOE spokeswoman confirmed that McCaskill's staff received a briefing on the Busche investigation this past Friday.
That briefing followed a hearing in March where McCaskill and other senators blasted contractors and DOE officials over the firing of Hanford whistleblowers (E&E Daily, March 12).
"The problems the IG had obtaining information from DOE contractors to investigate the firing of whistleblowers have been ongoing. The fact that this information could be withheld by a DOE contractor from the DOE's own inspector general just shows how dysfunctional DOE's whistleblower protection policies truly are," said an aide to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Wyden also has criticized DOE on the whistleblower issue. In the meantime, DOE itself has run into legal trouble over its handling of Hanford.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) yesterday declared his plan to sue the department and one of its contractors over noxious tank fumes at the nuclear waste site (E&ENews PM, Nov. 19).
Other whistleblowers have found success outside of DOE when it comes to their cases.
A case over URS employee Walter Tamosaitis' firing after raising concerns about Hanford's planned waste treatment facility is moving forward after a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling earlier this month (E&ENews PM, Nov. 7).
Shelly Doss, another Hanford whistleblower, won a decision with the Department of Labor after her firing (Greenwire, Aug. 21).
Busche is pursuing other legal avenues, too, in response to her firing. She has two pending complaints with the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Seattle, which her lawyers hope will be resolved in early 2015.