A company heavily criticized for its handling of a federal compensation program for sick nuclear weapons plant workers is performing tasks it was not hired to do, a government investigation found.

New Orleans-based Science and Engineering Associates, which recently became Apogen Technologies, is an information technology company contracted by the Energy Department to build a database system for the program. But the company also ended up hiring nurses and preparing worker claims for doctors to review.

A report by the inspector general of the General Services Administration found that the additional work was "outside the scope" of what the company was hired to do.

Jack Lebo, a spokesman for IG Daniel Levinson, said companies can lose contracts or be asked to pay the government back when they do "outside the scope" work. However, that rarely occurs.

Mike Smith, a spokesman for the contractor, disagreed with the IG's review. "We believe it's all in scope and what the DOE contract called for SEA to do," Smith said.

Levinson's initial findings were outlined in a July letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). In response, Grassley sent a scathing letter to Energy Department officials and others yesterday.

"In simple terms, the payments to SEA/Apogen, and the company's work, were not authorized by the contract and thus were improper, irregular and potentially unlawful," Grassley said.

He said government officials either "knew about the violation and allowed it, or were too negligent to detect and stop it."

Richard Miller, a policy analyst with the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, said the IG's findings explain problems workers have encountered with the compensation program.

"By bypassing contracting rules, DOE wound up with an under-qualified contractor whose expertise is in scanning documents and putting them in a computer, but was required to know how to set up an efficient, multistep workers' compensation claims evaluation process," Miller said.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the agency is reviewing Grassley's letter and, as previously announced, is seeking to "establish a new contract for the work performed by SEA/Apogen in the past."

Apogen is competing for the new contract, Smith said.

The department and its contractor have been criticized during multiple congressional hearings for their handling of the compensation program, which is supposed to help workers exposed to toxic substances while building bombs.

Energy has received about $95 million for the program since Congress created it four years ago. However, 31 out of about 25,000 workers who filed claims have received payments, according to department records.