The department says it is having internal discussions on whether to join the whistleblower suit accusing Lockheed Martin.
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
The request filed Monday is the 14th time since the suit was filed in June 1999 that the government has asked for an extension, and each one has been routinely approved by U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley Jr. The suit will not be litigated until the government makes its decision.
In asking for a delay in October, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Campbell told the judge that he "anticipated the matter will be processed for a final decision on intervention" by Dec. 17. Now he's asking for the deadline to be moved to Jan. 31.
The week after that delay was granted, a federal grand jury in Louisville began investigating whether Lockheed's activities were criminal, according to former workers who have been asked to testify.
Campbell said the grand jury investigation, which could take months or even years to complete, "doesn't play into the request for the extension." Campbell, who is head of the civil division for the Western District of Kentucky, said he is not involved in the grand jury investigation.
Asked the reason for another delay, Campbell said, "We have been having internal discussions, and quite frankly some of the bosses in the Department of Justice asked us to get the extension. It isn't a matter of things lying dormant. Things are moving along."
He said the additional time is needed to review thousands of pages of documents and material gathered by investigators.
Lockheed and its predecessor companies operated the plant for the Energy Department from 1982 until 1992. The suit claims Lockheed made false statements involving storage and disposal of radioactive waste, exposure of workers to contaminants, and contamination of groundwater and soil with plutonium, neptunium and other radioactive materials.
The suit contends that because of the false statements, Lockheed was paid hundreds of millions of dollars in operating fees that it didnít deserve. It also claims the company's activities caused contamination that is costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.
The suit asks that Lockheed be ordered to refund those fees, which could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to attorney Joe Egan, who filed the suit. If successful, the whistleblowers would receive up to 25 percent of the money.
Lockheed strongly denies the claims.
The plaintiffs are three current and former employees ó Ronald B. Fowler, Charles F. Deuschle and Garland E. Jenkins; the Natural Resources Defense Council; and Thomas B. Cochran, a member of the defense council.
The Department of Justice and the Department of Energy have spent more than $1 million investigating the claims. Government attorneys and experts have reviewed thousands of pages of documents, tested the contents of landfills, and interviewed current and former plant workers.
Egan says the investigation has "largely affirmed the allegations" made in the suit.
Campbell would not comment on Egan's contention that the delay has been caused by DOE officials. He also said that delays in whistleblower suits are common. "I've had cases that are more complex than this one that took longer to decide," Campbell said.
Campbell said he could not promise that this would be the last request for an extension. "We are working hard to move this to the next level, and there has been a lot of work done during the last few months," Campbell said. "Everybody would like to see a decision come based on a complete and thorough analysis of the evidence."