Sandra Black did the right thing — and was fired.
Her bosses at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), an Energy Department contractor, did the wrong thing, repeatedly.
For them — no apparent consequences.
While Savannah River is the villain in this saga, it also points to neglect in the department’s protection of whistleblowers at private companies that run much of the agency’s business.
More than two years after being fired for telling the truth to government investigators, Black has been vindicated and is receiving justice. She won her job back along with lost pay and damages.
But questions remain.
Will company officials who ravaged her life and career or attempted to conceal information about safety defects she sought to reveal get what they deserve?
Will the Department of Energy improve its oversight of contractor whistleblowers so others don’t suffer as Black has?
Black is the employee-concerns program manager we wrote about in August when she was introduced at a news conference called by three senators. They complained about the Energy Department’s weak oversight of contractor companies that retaliate against whistleblowers.
“The DOE has the ability to make things right — first by reinstating its rules to punish contractors that retaliate against whistleblowers like Sandra Black, and second, by penalizing this specific contractor for retaliating against her,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Thursday by email. “The DOE’s failure to take any action would send a dangerous signal to contractors at the Energy Department and across the government that it’s still open season on whistleblowers.”
As a highly rated and decorated employee-concerns manager, Black was a channel for staffers to report safety, management and other issues at the 310-square-mile nuclear storage complex in South Carolina. But she found some of her reports were rejected by managers more interested in coverups.
The Energy Department’s Office of Hearing and Appeals (OHA), citing the department’s inspector general, listed incidents in which Savannah River’s senior management sought to interfere with Black’s findings that validated employee complaints about safety or other issues. For example, the hearing office said the company’s general counsel’s office directed her “to change findings that ‘substantiated’ concerns, and on one occasion, attempted to prevent her from reporting a matter to DOE for evaluation.”
Another time, after Black found that nuclear-safety workers, afraid of reprisal, did not report problems, they received a clear warning from management. A company vice president “identified the employees who said they feared retaliation for raising health and safety issues,” according to the hearing-office report.
In January 2015, Black was fired for “unsatisfactory job performance.”
Barbara H. Smoak, a Savannah River spokeswoman, said the company will comply with the OHA order on Black’s back pay and reinstatement, which is scheduled for April 1. “We value the importance of a robust employee concerns program to resolve employee concerns through collaboration and mediation,” Smoak added.
That’s not what the record shows.
“It was a very devastating experience for me to be terminated after having 34 years of a successful career,” Black said by phone. “It caused a lot of hardship, mentally, emotionally, financially. . . . That was very traumatic for me and quite a shock.”
A letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry from Wyden and Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) gives the Energy Department its share of the blame. The senators said they are “concerned that OHA took no action on the underlying allegations that Ms. Black raised with GAO — allegations that SRNS management actively sought to reverse substantiated safety claims by whistleblowers at the site. Similarly, OHA took no action with regard to sanctions or penalties against SRNS or its managers who engaged in retaliatory behavior.”
They cited a July Government Accountability Office report that said: “DOE has infrequently used its enforcement authority to hold contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation, issuing two violation notices in the past 20 years. . . . Also, DOE has taken limited or no action to hold contractors accountable for creating a chilled work environment.”
An Energy Department statement said it is “assessing what further actions might be appropriate under the circumstances….DOE does not take disciplinary action against contractor employees, because that decision is within the discretion of the contractor.”
Black’s attorney, Billie Garde of Clifford & Garde, said a “major problem” is that the department does not have a policy, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s, to deal with managers who take revenge against whistleblowers. “At an NRC-regulated site, acts of retaliation like this can result in civil penalties, being banned from working in the industry, and other forms of enforcement action,” she said. “At DOE, they put their heads in the sand and say, ‘We can’t tell the contractor what to do,’ — that is BS.”
Black concluded an interview on an optimistic note: “I’m hopeful that my return to work will work out satisfactorily both for me and Savannah River.”
Garde has a more skeptical, real-world warning: “Even legitimate, valid, principled ‘whistleblowing’ will still get you fired, and no one is going to protect you. You will have to get your own lawyer and fight your own battle — and the DOE field offices will do nothing to assist or protect you.”