APNewsBreak: Senator questions why agency pays contractor legal fees in whistleblower cases

Private contractors for the U.S. Department of Energy have spent at least $3.5 million in legal expenses to battle two critics of a massive construction project at the nation's most polluted nuclear site, according to a letter obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.

The letter is from the chairwoman of a U.S. Senate subcommittee that is investigating whether there was retaliation against two Hanford Nuclear Reservation workers who raised safety concerns and then lost their jobs at the former nuclear weapons production site.

"The Department of Energy may be providing an incentive to contractors to engage in protracted litigation with whistleblowers by reimbursing the contractors' legal expenses," said the letter from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The Energy Department said in a news release that such payments were lawful.

"In compliance with applicable federal regulations, the Department of Energy allows for provisional reimbursement of contractor legal expenses on a case-by-case basis for cost-reimbursable contracts," the agency said.

McCaskill heads the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which is investigating the treatment of former Hanford workers Walter Tamosaitis and Donna Busche.

The two longtime Hanford employees lost their jobs after raising concerns about the design and safety of the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford. The one-of-a-kind plant is intended to convert up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from production of nuclear weapons materials into a stable glass form for disposal.

Work has been stopped on key portions of the long-delayed plant to resolve numerous technical issues.

Tamosaitis and Busche's concerns contributed to the halt in construction. The two have filed lawsuits as whistleblowers, and their cases remain in litigation. They met with Moniz last year to discuss their concerns.

Hanford is near the city of Richland, about 150 miles west of Spokane. For decades, it made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and now is engaged in a multibillion-dollar cleanup of the resulting radioactive wastes.

Bechtel National has the contract to build the plant, and URS Corp. is the major subcontractor.

According to McCaskill's letter, the Energy Department has reimbursed URS $3 million and Bechtel $500,000 in legal expenses to deal with the two critics' allegations.

"I would like to understand the criteria used by the contracting officer to determine that this expenditure was allowable and reasonable," McCaskill wrote. She requested a reply by July 11.

McCaskill also wondered if the two private contractors would be reimbursed for the costs of testifying before her subcommittee in March. She said URS estimated its costs in preparing to testify at more than $650,000.

"I would like to know whether DOE regularly reimburses contractors for costs associated with responding to congressional requests and preparing for hearings," her letter said.

McCaskill also questioned nondisclosure agreements the two contractors required employees to sign. The agreements prohibit employees from disclosing confidential information without the contractors' permission. McCaskill wondered if such agreements prevented other workers from coming forward with safety and environmental concerns.

"As you know, reporting those concerns, including to Congress, is protected by law," McCaskill wrote.

The watchdog group Hanford Challenge praised the letter.

"It is an ongoing abuse of taxpayer money to reimburse contractors' legal fees in whistleblower cases," director Tom Carpenter said.

The system allows employers to "rid the workplace of a truth-teller and get the government to pay unlimited attorney fees to fight the case," Carpenter said.

He also noted both Tamosaitis and Busche paid their own expenses to attend the March subcommittee hearing, and they were not allowed to testify.