NBC Nightly News

January 1, 2004, 7:15 PM

Weapons Lab Employees' Compensation Mess


CAMPBELL BROWN: NBC News "In Depth" tonight. Government workers feeling doubly betrayed. First they found out their jobs made them sick. Then, when it was time to be compensated for the harm done to them, an unbelievable political and bureaucratic mess left them out in the cold. "In Depth" tonight, here's NBC's senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers.

LISA MYERS: During seven years of work at a nuclear weapons plant, Janine Anderson was poisoned by some of the most hazardous materials known to man. Only 50 years old, she now has severe tremors and damage to most major organs.

JANINE ANDERSON [Patient]: I never dreamed that I was getting exposed to things that would change my life forever.

MYERS: In 2000, Congress decided that Anderson and thousands of victims like her deserved compensation. But three years later, she and many others have not received a dime.

JANINE ANDERSON [Patient]: There has been no justice for these sick workers.

MYERS: How can this happen? It's a classic Washington story. First, the compensation program was split between two agencies. One, the Department of Labor has performed well, compensating almost 10,000 deserving workers. But at the Department of Energy not a single worker has gotten anything.

DAVID MICHAELS [Former Dept. of Energy Official]: They hired a contractor who is very well politically connected, but really had no background in running programs like this and the result is the mess we are in today.

MYERS: That contractor, Science and Engineering Associates, or SEA, of Louisiana, has been paid about $20 million so far, yet admits it had trouble developing a data base for the program. To fix matters, this Fall Senator Charles Grassley proposed shifting the entire program to the Labor Department. But that would cut SEA out of the picture and out of millions of dollars. So the company flexed its political muscle. Documents obtained by NBC News show the company spent a half million dollars on lobbyists on this and other issues over the last two years.

These talking points written by an SEA lobbyist were adopted almost word for word in a letter by the company's home state senators, Louisiana's John Breaux and Mary Landrieu.

RICHARD MILLER [Government Accountability Project]: They pushed every button there was to push, led by the Louisiana delegation, which was acting as their advocate in Congress to try to kill this legislation.

MYERS: The senators would not comment. SEA argues Grassley's plan would not have fixed anything because the real problem is how Congress structured the law, requiring DOE to work through states to pay workers. In the end, the company won.

RICHARD MILLER [Government Accountability Project]: This is really a story about how the little guy's been trumped by big money.

MYERS: Janine Anderson says she hopes to live long enough to see the program actually work. The company and Energy Department insist they are making progress, but congressional investigators estimate it will take seven years just to work through the backlog of claims.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.