SANTA FE, N.M. — Chuck Montaño was a long-time thorn in the side of Los Alamos National Laboratory management, from the inside. And he’s not stopping now, even though he’s been gone from the lab for nearly five years.
Montaño and two friends – former lab investigators Steve Doran and Glenn Walp – are pushing to reopen an investigation into theft and fraud at the lab that dates from more than a decade ago.
They maintain there’s evidence that the purchasing and property management scandal that rocked the lab in 2002 went much higher in the LANL hierarchy than just the two employees – a team leader in facilities management and a purchaser on the team – who were the only people charged criminally.
Their evidence includes court statements from two former lab employees who say that, in separate instances, the team leader who was charged with theft and former LANL deputy director Richard Burick discussed their joint plans for a hunting operation on a ranch Burick owned.
And many of the items fraudulently obtained using the lab’s account could have been used for hunting, ranching or in a lodge, Montaño, Walp and Doran say.
Their information is now in the hands of the federal Department of Justice and the Department of Energy’s inspector general office. But whether the DOE or the Justice Department will in fact take a new look at case remains to be seen. Previous efforts to get the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office interested apparently went nowhere.
The issues being raised “were never investigated,” said Montaño.
“If there’s a political reason for not holding people accountable, let’s hear it,” he added.
He details the case in a recently published book, “Los Alamos: A Whistleblower’s Diary.”
In May, Montaño, Walp and Doran sent a lengthy letter calling for a new probe to an investigative subcommittee of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, and to New Mexico’s two senators and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
The New Mexico congressional offices sent it to the Justice Department and Sen. Tom Udall’s staff also provided it to the DOE’s inspector general, office staffers said. “I’ve really stayed focused on getting our delegation to do something,” said Montaño.
He’s also met with the staff of the House subcommittee. “I haven’t heard anything back,” he said.
This kind of advocacy isn’t Montaño’s first tussle over lab operations.
Montaño, an auditor, filed suit making his own claims of retaliation over changes in his job duties that he maintained resulted from a report detailing extensive fraudulent billings at the lab. That suit was resolved with an undisclosed settlement under which Montaño left the lab on Dec. 31, 2010. Among other battles, Montaño led an effort in the 1990s challenging how a lab reduction in force affected Hispanic employees.
Back in 2002, former police officers Walp and Doran were fired from jobs at LANL’s Office of Security Inquiries as they were investigating bogus purchases and shortly after Walp’s scathing review of LANL’s security failures was leaked to the press. Scores of other internal LANL documents were leaked to the Journal, and the purchasing scandal blew up.
Eventually, at least 18 senior LANL managers were dismissed, demoted or transferred; former LANL director John Browne resigned; and the DOE decided to bid out the lab’s management contract for the first time ever after six decades of operation by the University of California (a private consortium that includes the Bechtel corporation and the university got the contract, and runs the lab now).
LANL defended the firings for months, including when he House Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a hearing on the mess. Both Walp and Doran filed suit and eventually received substantial settlements (Walp’s was $930,000), and the university admitted they were wrongfully terminated.
The two people arrested were facilities team leader Peter Bussolini and purchaser Scott Alexander. Bussolini got a six-month prison sentence and $30,000 in fines, and Alexander was sentenced to a year behind bars. They acknowledged their actions cost the lab as much as $200,000, although lab investigators estimated the purchases amounted to much more.
The items said to have been fraudulently purchased included TV sets, power tools, night-vision binoculars, an electric gate opener, tires and shock absorbers, high-end barbecue grills, CB radios, picnic tables, and hunting and outdoor gear like camping equipment and military knives.
Montaño, Walp and Doran focus on Richard Burick, whose LANL jobs had included lab deputy director before he retired 2002. He died a year later from what the Los Alamos police said was a self-inflicted gunshot in the parking lot of the Pajarito ski area.
The three whistleblowers contend there were connections between Bussolini and Burick that weren’t known when the purchasing scandal was investigated. If a deputy director like Burick had a role, they say, that means the purchasing scandal extended to the upper echelons of lab management.
A woman who took a call to Bussolini’s phone number this week said there was no connection between Bussolini and Burick other than that Burick was “somebody at work.”
“This has been rehashed and rehashed,” she said. “There was no connection between them.” Before she quickly hung up, she added, “We’re not interested in talking to anyone and I don’t want to hear anything about it, either.”
Burick’s death lends an air of mystery to the Montaño/Walp/Doran scenario – they maintain the investigation of the death was botched. Doran did his own probe that says the handgun used was found in an unusual position, with the gun cylinder open and a discharged bullet cartridge halfway out, that can’t be duplicated.
The Los Alamos police have denied any problems with the case or any doubt it was a suicide, including in a Santa Fe Reporter article in 2012. (Burick’s widow didn’t return a phone message this week, but she told the Los Alamos Monitor in 2011, “He had cancer and he was on medication, and I am absolutely certain that it was nothing other than a suicide.”)
As Montaño’s group notes, the Office of the state Medical Investigator report that ruled Burick’s death a suicide includes this statement: “It is reported that he may have suffered from recurrent prostate cancer and may have been the subject of an investigation related to his job.” The lab has said previously, though, that there was no probe of Burick.
Among the evidence Montaño cites to link Bussolini and Burick are statements that two former lab employees gave in 2010 as part of Montaño’s whistleblower lawsuit against UCal. In a sworn deposition, one said Burick once told him that, when he retired, Burick planned to turn a “camp” he owned into a hunting lodge and that Bussolini would help run it.
Another said in an affidavit given “under penalty of perjury” that, in the early 2000s, when discussing retirement plans, “Mr. Bussolini revealed his intent to participate in the management of a ranch and hunting operation with Deputy Director Richard Burick.”
Montaño, Walp and Doran say in their May letter to Congress that the items illegally obtained on LANL’s account “consisted mainly of hunting and ranching equipment.” Burick did own a ranch in southern New Mexico, and a LANL employee newsletter report from 2001 has Burick saying he planned to retire there (but he only mentions raising cattle, not a lodge).
The May letter to Congress concludes that Montaño, Walp and Doran believe “the disturbing insights” they’ve come up with – which include many more twists and turns and details – “were purposely withheld from” the House subcommittee in 2003 “and should be made part of the record in this matter.”