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