The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a well-deserved reputation as a toothless watchdog, and nowhere has it been apparently less vigilant than in the regional headquarters in Arlington, Tex.

Indeed, the chief enforcement officer in the region "really didn't believe in enforcement," his former boss told agency investigators last year.

The comment about Thomas F. Westerman was made by Richard Denise, the former No. 3 man in the NRC's Region 4 office, which covers 14 states. He also said Westerman discouraged inspectors under him by "worrying their work product to death and questioning it to a great extreme." As a result, some inspectors stopped writing tough reports on nuclear power plants, Denise said.

Westerman defended his attention to details. He told us that he had to go over the inspectors' reports with a fine-tooth comb or they would be spiked by commission lawyers in Washington.

Our associate Stewart Harris obtained the transcript of an interview with Denise, part of an internal investigation of agency officials in Region 4 last year. The highly critical 3,000-page report of the probe is now at the center of a heated debate at the NRC over procedures in Region 4. Only a sanitized version has been publicly released.

"I had a sufficient number of discussions with Westerman to conclude that Mr. Westerman really didn't believe in enforcement," Denise told the investigators, according to the transcript. Denise had quit his Region 4 job at the time of the interview, but he told us his departure had nothing to do with problems he mentioned to investigators.

Westerman's name surfaced publicly last April when an inspector told a Governmental Affairs subcommittee, headed by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), that Westerman had pressured inspectors assigned to the Comanche Peak nuclear plant near Dallas to delete unfavorable findings.

Inspector Shannon Phillips testified before the subcommittee that Westerman had said his (Westerman's) job was "to license the plant." At one point, Westerman became so upset with Phillips' aggressive enforcement style that he suggested Phillips find another job -- outside Region 4.

Phillips got the investigation in Region 4 rolling last year when he accused Westerman and another official, Eric Johnson, of deleting important evidence of violations from a report Phillips wrote -- then releasing it under Phillips' signature without telling him of the changes. Phillips voiced his concerns to an NRC commissioner who assigned the agency's top investigator to the case.

Westerman and Johnson told us that Phillips assented to changes in his report on Comanche Peak.

Footnote: Westerman was so highly regarded by his superiors in Washington that he was awarded a bonus. Payment on the check was stopped when investigators working on the Region 4 report protested. The Government Accountability Project, a public-interest group that fights for the rights of whistle blowers, is seeking release of the full 3,000-page report in a suit filed under the Freedom of Information Act.