Columnist

The H-Cayon control room at the Savannah River Site in November 2013 . (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

Sandra Black says she lost her job for doing her job.

Black worked for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), the private contractor that operates the Department of Energy’s (DOE) 310-square-mile nuclear storage complex in South Carolina. As her title “employee concerns program (ECP) manager” indicated, Black was the point person for issues staffers wanted to fix.

Her office was the place whistleblowers could feel protected when reporting safety and other problems — in theory.

Yet, serving as a conduit for whistleblowers proved to be just as risky as being one. Management retaliation is an occupational hazard not only in federal agencies, but also in companies doing Uncle Sam’s work.

Despite a “spotless” record from the time she started in 1980, Black said, she was fired in January 2015 after talking to federal officials “about the difficulties and challenges” she faced doing her job. Her termination points to the Energy Department’s seriously deficient oversight of whistleblower protection at contractor facilities where most of the agency’s work is done.

Black told her story at a recent news conference where three senators presented a Government Accountability Office report that detailed the Energy Department’s weak contractor management. Among other things, GAO found that DOE “has infrequently used its enforcement authority to hold contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation, issuing two violation notices in the past 20 years” and that “DOE has taken limited or no action to hold contractors accountable for creating a chilled work environment.”

Black was fired after discussing with GAO investigators the problems she confronted protecting whistleblowers.

“My disclosures included describing numerous incidents in which an SRNS corporate lawyer interfered with an ECP investigation, directed an ECP investigator to change findings or substantiated retaliation to not substantiated,” she said.

GAO interviewed Black as part of its effort to determine whether “the culture at DOE allows contractor employees to raise concerns without fear of reprisal.”

The short answer is no.

But it is trying, just as it has been trying and trying and trying for years.

Department leaders “have repeatedly articulated their commitment to fostering a work environment that encourages … an organizational culture that promotes the free and open expression of concerns by employees,” Glenn Podonsky, the Energy Department’s director of independent enterprise assessments, wrote in the department’s response to the GAO report.

GAO’s report was requested by Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

“Black was actually the person whose job it was to help whistleblowers come forward anonymously with safety concerns at the Savannah River Nuclear Site,” Markey said. “But between 2008 and 2015, Sandra was subject to repeated harassment and intimidation by her superiors, who obstructed her investigations, pressured her to illegally disclose the identity of whistleblowers, and attempted to remove her from her position when she refused to compromise her integrity. And after Sandra talked to GAO investigators working at our request … about her employer’s actions, she was fired. This is the definition of adding insult to injury.”

Not so, says SRNS.

“We deny, in the strongest possible terms, that Ms. Black was terminated for her cooperation with the GAO, for any other improper reason, or in violation of any law or regulation,” said Barbara H. Smoak, a company spokeswoman, who would not discuss details because Black’s case is ongoing.

The senators were particularly upset with the Energy Department for essentially co-signing retaliation against contractor whistleblowers by paying a firm’s legal fees in whistleblower disputes.

That means taxpayers fund corporate legal actions against individual whistleblowers, leaving the latter at a significant disadvantage because they must pay out of pocket to protect their rights. If the whistleblower claims are substantiated, then the company has to pay the government back. But how many whistleblowers give up before it gets to that point because they can’t afford the fight? And does the Energy Department reimburse whistleblowers if their allegations against companies are validated? The department was silent on that point.

“Why would we deliberately use taxpayer money to endanger public safety and discourage whistleblowers from coming forward to report security or safety violations or fraudulent activity?” Markey asked. “This make no sense.”

On that point, Andrew Gumbiner, the Energy Department’s press secretary, said the agency has “undertaken to clarify our regulations to provide for the possibility of assessing civil penalties against contractors for retaliating against their employees who raise nuclear safety concerns.”

McCaskill and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have sponsored legislation that would expand whistleblower protections to employees of federal contractors, and a companion bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and four co-sponsors.

“Whistleblowers are our first line of defense against misconduct and waste of taxpayer dollars,” said McCaskill, noting that the Energy Department has six times as many contractor workers as federal employees.

“The Department of Energy’s continued failure to protect whistleblowers from retaliation has tapped the last of our patience,” she said. “When agencies and their contractors seek to silence whistleblowers and dodge accountability, it only discourages other employees from speaking up, and it’s time to put an end to it.”

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