Los Alamos: Se­cret Colony, Hid­den Truths — A Whistle­blower’s Di­ary by Chuck Mon­tañ´ o

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Casey Sanchez

by Chuck Mon­taño, Desert Tor­toise Pub­lish­ing, 364 pages

Af­ter 32 years of work­ing at Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory, Chuck Mon­taño’s last day on the job as an au­di­tor had all the pomp of an of­framp mo­tel room at check­out time. “In­stead of a go­ing-away gift and slice of re­tire­ment cake, I had a le­gal doc­u­ment in hand, putting to rest six waste­ful years of lit­i­ga­tion,” Mon­taño writes of his Dec. 31, 2010, dis­missal. “I was to leave the Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory (LANL) for good, qui­etly ... just dis­ap­pear. ... No one could talk about it, or at least not yet.”

That pas­sage comes from the be­gin­ning of Mon­taño’s new book, a sweep­ing tell-all about his ca­reer at LANL and his un­stint­ing take on the lab’s man­age­ment prac­tices. For years, Mon­taño was known as that rare lab em­ployee who would speak to both re­porters and fed­eral Depart­ment of En­ergy in­ves­ti­ga­tors about al­le­ga­tions of fraud and waste at LANL, us­ing his pro­fes­sional knowl­edge of the fa­cil­ity’s pro­cure­ment and ac­count­ing pro­cesses.

But as an act of whistle­blower re­tal­i­a­tion, Mon­taño al­leges, his su­per­vi­sors in 2004 as­signed him to “cu­bi­cle iso­la­tion,” forc­ing him to en­dure months at his desk with no work as­sign­ments in hopes that the in­tense bore­dom would cause him to re­sign. The next year, he filed a whistle­blower law­suit, even­tu­ally win­ning an undis­closed set­tle­ment in 2011 that freed him to legally write his mem­oir. “My job was to in­ves­ti­gate hon­estly and to fac­tu­ally re­port what I found,” Mon­taño said in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “But the re­al­ity is at LANL you can get la­beled a non-team player and get tar­geted for ret­ri­bu­tion for do­ing so.”

One of the main rea­sons Mon­taño self-pub­lished his book last sum­mer was to con­vince a con­gres­sional sub­com­mit­tee to re­open its Fe­bru­ary 2003 in­ves­ti­ga­tion into why LANL, in Novem­ber 2002, ter­mi­nated the con­tracts of in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors Glenn Walp and Steve Do­ran less than a year af­ter hir­ing the vet­eran law-en­force­ment of­fi­cers to in­ves­ti­gate fraud and po­ten­tial se­cu­rity breaches. The pair were re­moved from their du­ties only days af­ter dis­cov­er­ing a Cold War-era bunker in a re­mote area of LANL that was filled with fraud­u­lently pur­chased out­door equip­ment.

Around the same time as the con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion, fa­cil­i­ties team leader Peter Bus­solini and pur­chaser Scott Alexan­der were ar­rested and sen­tenced to prison af­ter ad­mit­ting they made fraud­u­lent LANL pur­chases for more than $200,000 worth of power tools, elec­tric gates, camp­ing equip­ment, CB ra­dios and high-end binoc­u­lars — the items that Walp and Do­ran said they found in the re­mote bunker. Mon­taño al­leges that the pa­per trail for this stolen equip­ment sug­gests in­volve­ment from the lab’s for­mer se­cond-high­es­trank­ing of­fi­cial, Richard Burick, who was found dead in a Pa­jar­ito ski area park­ing lot from what po­lice deemed a self-in­flicted gun­shot wound in Jan­uary 2003, a month be­fore the con­gres­sional hear­ing.

Us­ing in­ter­nal LANL news­let­ters as well as the pub­licly avail­able 2010 court de­po­si­tions of two LANL em­ploy­ees, Mon­taño al­leges that Bus­solini had planned to work for Burick at a pri­vate, 20,000acre cat­tle ranch Burick then owned in South­ern New Mex­ico. At the time of Bus­solini’s ar­rest, Burick was a part-time em­ployee who had re­cently re­turned to work af­ter years as serv­ing as LANL’s deputy di­rec­tor — es­sen­tially the lab’s se­cond-in-com­mand.

Mon­taño wrote to Depart­ment of En­ergy of­fi­cials in 2015 that “Burick, who re­tired ef­fec­tive Jan­uary 2002, sold his ranch eight months later, ac­cord­ing to county records, for 1 (one) dol­lar and ‘other valu­able con­sid­er­a­tion,’ the trans­ac­tion oc­cur­ring just ten days af­ter an FBI raid in Los Alamos, to se­cure the bunker in ques­tion.”

Walp and Do­ran suc­cess­fully sued the lab and its Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia man­age­ment cor­po­ra­tion for wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion. Walp, a for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia State Po­lice com­mis­sioner, re­counted his own ex­pe­ri­ence in­ves­ti­gat­ing fraud at LANL in his 2010 book, Im­plo­sion at Los Alamos: How Crime, Cor­rup­tion and Cover-Ups Jeop­ar­dize Amer­ica’s Nu­clear Weapons Se­crets. In May 2015, Walp, Do­ran, and Mon­taño sent a joint let­ter to the con­gres­sional sub­com­mit­tee re­spon­si­ble for the LANL in­ves­ti­ga­tion and to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lu­ján (D-Santa Fe), call­ing for the 2003 in­ves­ti­ga­tion to be re­opened.

Mon­taño’s book goes into greater de­tail about th­ese al­le­ga­tions, and sev­eral chap­ters ex­plore un­com­fort­able so­cial truths about life in the sur­round­ing com­pany towns of Los Alamos and White Rock. Born and raised in a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood in Santa Fe, Mon­taño wit­nessed how LANL trans­formed Los Alamos into one of the coun­try’s wealth­i­est en­claves, even as it de­pended on hun­dreds of bluecol­lar work­ers from the eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed Es­pañola Val­ley for its cus­to­dial and main­te­nance staff. In the 1990s, Mon­taño formed Cit­i­zens for LANL Em­ployee Rights, which pub­li­cized dras­tic cut­backs in the LANL work­force and ed­u­cated em­ploy­ees about their rights un­der fed­eral and state laws.

Los Alamos: Se­cret Colony, Hid­den Truths of­fers an in­sider’s look at day-to-day life on the mesa, work­ing around one of the world’s largest as­sem­blages of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als. For in­stance, Mon­taño ex­plains how LANL eval­u­a­tors are tasked with track­ing MUF, or “ma­te­rial un­ac­counted for.” The “un­ac­counted” part could be the re­sult of theft, ra­dioac­tive de­cay, or en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion. Upon start­ing work at the lab in the 1970s as a guard, Mon­taño spent an hour in a lead-lined vault as med­i­cal staff as­sessed his base­line ra­di­a­tion lev­els. As em­ploy­ees left the lab or trans­ferred in and out of its more sen­si­tive sec­tors, fur­ther tests would mea­sure any change in ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure. “If so, at that point, the [em­ployee] was a walk­ing, talk­ing repos­i­tory of MUF,” he writes.

Mon­taño feels LANL’s ap­proach to fis­cal waste and nu­clear waste are linked. On a visit to Area G— a ra­dioac­tive-waste dis­posal site on the lab­o­ra­tory’s south­west­ern bound­ary — he no­ticed a new in­dus­trial ve­hi­cle left to rust. “It was a huge fork­lift con­tam­i­nated with plutonium,” he writes. “Some­one had de­cided it was more cost-ef­fec­tive to get rid of it than to clean it up.”

The fraud Mon­taño al­leges took place at LANL isn’t unique to the lab, the au­thor in­sists. Rather, it’s the nat­u­ral out­growth of a cul­ture that ties job se­cu­rity to em­ployee si­lence in the face of fraud. “The largest frauds com­mit­ted in so­ci­ety are com­mit­ted by peo­ple who work in the high­est lev­els of man­age­ment,” he said. “There’s usu­ally an emo­tional ra­tio­nale. Per­haps they are sick or they feel they have been short­changed in some way. But they have the trust and the abil­ity to cir­cum­vent in­ter­nal con­trols.”

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