Report Backs Up Navy Whistle-Blower

Problems were found in the catapult system of the USS Kitty Hawk, shown here at its base in Yokosuka, Japan.
Problems were found in the catapult system of the USS Kitty Hawk, shown here at its base in Yokosuka, Japan. (2001 Photo By Kimimasa Mayama -- Reuters)
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Navy whistle-blower uncovered critical welding problems on an aircraft carrier that could have caused aircraft to crash and kill or injure pilots and sailors, according to an Office of Special Counsel report released yesterday.

The report, a summary of whistle-blower Kristin Shott's concerns and the Navy's investigation of them, said welding defects in the catapult hydraulic piping systems on the USS Kitty Hawk were similar to those found in 2002 aboard five other aircraft carriers. The catapults are used in launching aircraft from the ship. Shott, a civilian welder at Naval Air Depot North Island in San Diego, identified problems with all the ships in multiple disclosures she filed with the special counsel after her managers did not look into her concerns.

Members of the military "depend on the integrity and safety of their equipment in ongoing operations around the world," Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch said in a statement yesterday. "Ms. Schott's decision to blow the whistle averted a potential catastrophic loss of life and equipment."

The OSC receives and evaluates reports of problems from whistle-blowers and can refer such reports to federal agencies for investigation. The office also is supposed to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation in the workplace and safeguard the federal merit system.

Bloch's critics say that under his leadership the OSC has not aggressively pursued whistle-blower claims and has dismissed cases arbitrarily. Bloch, who began a five-year term as head of OSC in January 2004, maintains that at his direction the agency whittled down pending whistle-blower claims from nearly 700 cases to 100.

He inherited Shott's case from his predecessor, Elaine Kaplan.

After confirming Shott's warnings, the Navy repaired the Kitty Hawk's catapults in November 2004, the report said. The cost of the repairs was not listed, but a related OSC report in 2003 said it cost $468,000 to fix the faulty welding on the other five aircraft carriers.

The earlier investigation found that four civilian supervisors and one naval officer had been negligent in their duties. Three supervisors were orally admonished, one was suspended for three days, and the officer was issued a "non-punitive letter of caution." The new investigation determined that the same people were responsible for the problems on the Kitty Hawk, but officials did not seek new disciplinary action.

Investigators found no evidence to support Shott's claims that Navy artisans in a variety of trades are unqualified to perform their duties.

In an interview yesterday, Shott, who first raised her concerns in 1998, said she was pleased the Navy had fixed the problems. But the manager she believes was most responsible has received no punishment, she said. Shott said she has been reassigned to more mundane work welding cargo containers, taking her away from her expertise in submarines, airplanes and aircraft carriers.

Shott, a 22-year federal employee, said she would never consider speaking up about wrongdoing again.

"Heavens no," she said. "The pain and the stress that one goes through and that my family has gone through? No, never again."

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