The whistle-blower lawsuit alleges damages and cover-up under Lockheed Martin.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Thursday, asking him to recommend that the Department of Justice join the suit seeking more than $1 billion in damages for the government. The whistle-blowers who brought the case would get 15 percent to 30 percent of any recovery.
Walter Perry, an Energy Department spokesman in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said his agency had not received the letter and any response would come from DOE headquarters in Washington.
After 12 court extensions in three years, the Justice Department has until Sept. 1 to decide whether it will intervene in the case it has been extensively investigating. Whistle-blower attorney Joe Egan said earlier that he doubted he would agree to another extension.
The suit, filed in June 1999, claims Lockheed Martin filed false environmental reports when it managed the plant and received hundreds of millions of dollars in operating bonuses as a result of those false statements, filed with the Energy Department.
The statements allegedly involved illegal storage and disposal of radioactive waste, unlawful exposure of workers to lethal contaminants, and contamination of groundwater and soil with plutonium, neptunium and other radioactive materials.
Lockheed Martin, which operated the Paducah site for DOE from 1982 to 1992, has strongly denied the allegations.
Waxman's letter said that besides the extensive effect on workers and the environment, plant problems have cost the government $51.3 million in compensation to 342 sick workers and families, and billions of dollars in past, current and future cleanup.
"If a corporation has indeed caused this terrible harm at Paducah, it would be outrageous to force the public to pay the bills three times over — first for the contract fees, second in suffering the harm and third for the cleanup to prevent further damage," Waxman wrote.
The letter said in part:
The Justice Department gives "substantial weight" to the opinion of a federal agency affected by a whistle-blower suit. "Although DOJ may intervene contrary to the affected agency's recommendation, this occurs rarely, and such a decision must be made by more senior officials within DOJ."
There appears to be "a basis for claims that Lockheed Martin mishandled radioactive materials and waste, inadequately protected workers against exposure and made false reports to the government." According to the whistle-blowers' attorneys, lawyers for the Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believe the case is strong.
Although whistle-blowers may proceed without governmental help, "such a case is less likely to succeed" because the government has substantial litigation resources.
Lockheed Martin "has tremendous political influence with the federal government," including millions of dollars in campaign contributions to both parties and many ties to the Bush administration.
"I know you agree that it would be inappropriate for political considerations to influence this decision, and it is unfortunate that Lockheed Martin's political activities could create an appearance problem if DOE recommends against intervention," Waxman wrote. "But if the facts dictate that DOE should not intervene, then I would urge you to make that decision, notwithstanding the perception problems that would exist."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Campbell said earlier that substantial progress had been made in the investigation, but he would not elaborate. The Sun reported last year that he had recommended to superiors in Washington that the Justice Department join the suit. The agency has spent more than $1 million and reviewed thousands of pages of documents to investigate the claims by three workers and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental watchdog group.