The Federal Diary by Joe Davidson Published: December 8, 2011
Walt Tamosaitis thought he was doing the right thing when he blew the whistle on problems with an Energy Department project. He was banished to the basement for his trouble.
The Richland, Wash., engineer was working as a federal contractor on the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) project, which he described as “our nation’s most contaminated facility, containing two-thirds of the nation’s high level nuclear waste.” It’s an Energy Department program, run by Bechtel Corp. and URS Corp. as the prime subcontractors. Tamosaitis said the objective “is to put 56 million gallons of hazardous nuclear waste into a stable waste form to eliminate an environmental and safety threat.”
Tamosaitis fully supports that objective, but he wants it done right. So in June 2010, he submitted a long list of technical issues that needed attention. “I am opposed to efforts to cut corners in order to meet artificial deadlines in order to earn fees,” he said in congressional testimony Tuesday. His efforts apparently were not appreciated. “I was suddenly terminated from the WTP job and escorted off the premises after I continued to raise valid safety and technical concerns,” he said.
Though taken off the project, he was not fired: He was exiled to the cellar, like a bad boy sent to his room. “My employer, URS, assigned me to a basement office that housed two working copying machines,” he told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ad hoc subcommittee on contracting oversight. “I’ve been sitting in a basement office now for nearly 16 months.”
URS declined to comment because Tamosaitis’s case is in litigation. Energy Department officials “have made clear time and again, retribution for raising safety concerns will not be tolerated,” said Jen Stutsman, a department spokesperson. “We are committed to continuing to improve our approach to safety at the Waste Treatment Plant, including making sure that technical and safety issues are addressed in an effective manner.” The congressional panel is considering legislation that would extend whistleblower protections to employees of government contracting companies. If passed, the bill would greatly increase the number of people who have protections against retaliation for making certain disclosures while doing Uncle Sam’s work.
It would be “the largest expansion in whistleblower rights for employees performing federal functions,” Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit whistleblower advocacy organization, said in an interview. In her testimony, Angela Canterbury, public policy director for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said tighter protections are needed because “whistleblowers have saved countless lives and billions of taxpayer dollars.” There are some protections in place for Defense Department contractors and those funded through the stimulus act of 2009. But that’s not enough. “The accountability loopholes are many in the patchwork of laws that protect only some federal fund recipients and only under very limited circumstances,” Canterbury said.
Closing the loopholes would come too late to help Tamosaitis, but his story is helping to push the legislation. “Despite my career being ended, I would do it again because it was the right thing to do,” Tamosaitis said. “Given the tools, more people like me will stand up against, waste, fraud, abuse, bad practices and poor quality in government contracts.” Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee and sponsor of the legislation, seemed taken aback by Tamosaitis’s ostracism and particularly by the strong message it sends. Here’s an excerpt from the hearing transcript: “McCaskill: And everyone sees you go to work in the basement with no windows? “Tamosaitis: Yes, yes, ma’am. “McCaskill: And knows that you are not allowed to work, even though you’re there on site and getting paid? “Tamosaitis: Correct. “McCaskill: So everyone — so every day you are an example to all the workers there, whether they’re federal employees or Bechtel employees, don’t say anything or you too will be banished to the basement? “Tamosaitis: Yes, Senator, very directly. It’s a very visible example of what happens if you speak up. “McCaskill: It’s just unbelievable to me that we’ve allowed this to occur. . . . I — I — I’m — I’m speechless about the reality of you still going there every day as a walking billboard to everyone about — to keep their mouth shut. Because that’s essentially what you are.”
Not so, says Bechtel, which is contesting Tamosaitis’s allegations. Bechtel national spokesperson Jason Bohne said, “We have not and will not tolerate retaliation or harassment in any form against anyone who raises issues.” A recent independent study, he added, found “no widespread evidence of a chilled atmosphere adverse to safety, or that WTP management suppresses technical dissent.”
Did they take the temperature in Tamosaitis’s office?