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Former Los Alamos lab executive sues over ‘forced’ resignation

SANTA FE – John Tapia, who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 28 years and held several high-level positions, says he was forced to resign in April because lab officials were afraid controversy over his outside role with a local electric cooperative could jeopardize the federal contract of the private consortium that runs LANL.

In a lawsuit filed this week in state District Court, Tapia alleges that leaders of Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), which holds the $2 billion lab contract under the Department of Energy, “decided that the LANS contract was more important to them than Tapia and intentionally violated Tapia’s employment contract thereby sacrificing Tapia’s career for their personal benefit.”

John Tapia

John Tapia

Lab spokesman Matt Nerzig said Friday that allegations of “multiple policy violations by” Tapia were the subject of a “comprehensive,” two-month investigation and that when Tapia was presented with the findings, he opted to resign in lieu of termination. “We are confident that we will prevail in the lawsuit,” Nerzig added.

Tapia says in the suit that he’s been told he will never again be granted a lab security badge or allowed on LANL property as a contractor. He also said it’s his understanding that LANS managers were told not to provide a job reference for Tapia.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for breach of contract, defamation and other counts.

When Tapia resigned, he was Acquisition Service Management deputy division leader at the lab, supervising 130 people, the suit says. The lab had previously declined to comment on his departure.

Tapia’s suit says that with LANS’s approval, he ran for a position on the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative board of trustees in 2013 and became the board chairman in March 2014. In late 2015, co-op member John Gutting, named along with LANS and others as a defendant in the suit, alleged that Tapia had been improperly reimbursed thousands of dollars for telephone calls, letter-writing and meetings.

The lawsuit calls the accusations “false and defamatory” and says an audit commissioned by the co-op found the allegations without merit. The Rio Grande Sun reported in September that the audit found that while trustees had submitted vouchers for compensation which clearly violated co-op policy, ithere was “no evidence of any intent to deceive or conceal their actions.” Tapia’s compensation included payments for attending meetings, including for two or three meetings in a single day, the Sun reported.

Tapia’s suit says the “negative publicity” over the controversy caused LANS and the Department of Energy to investigate, leading to LANS forcing him to resign or be terminated.

The suit says LANS general counsel David Sosinski and principal associate director of operations  Craig Scott Leasure changed an initial decision that Tapia be only “counseled or transferred” and he was forced out “because they were concerned that if the Gutting allegations were accurate, it would embarrass LANS and potentially prevent it from renewing its contract with DOE which at the time they were negotiating with DOE.”

In late 2015 — before Tapia resigned — DOE decided to put the lab contract out for new competition among contractors because of poor performance reviews for LANS in recent years. In May of this year — about a month after Tapia’s departure — the federal government did grant LANS a one-year contract extension, through September 2018. During the interim, the contract will be put out for competition.

A higher-ranking lab executive, former LANL executive director Richard Marquez, left the lab for unexplained reasons in February. Tapia and Marquez were linked by an investigator of a LANL procurement scandal that broke in 2002 and led to guilty pleas by two lab workers.

Steve Doran told a Congressional subcommittee in 2003 that Marquez and Tapia were among members of the lab’s upper management who “thwarted” investigative efforts. But Marquez noted then that a special inquiry found no evidence of a cover-up and said Tapia supported investigators.