Lawsuit returns to the scene of the CREM

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By Roger Snodgrass

A lawsuit filed Dec. 12 in New Mexico District Court in Los Alamos revisits a controversial episode in the recent history of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In a legal complaint, John Horne, a now-retired firing site leader and lead technician, says he was one of several employees implicated in the alleged disappearance of two classified disks, an incident that turned out to be a false alarm.

A statement by the laboratory this morning said the laboratory had not yet been served with the complaint by John Horne.

He was the presumed owner of the disks that were reported missing on July 6, 2004. But in fact, as later developments revealed, he was merely the person who had been assigned extra barcodes by an inexperienced clerk, and then expected to account for classified material that he never possessed.

As it turned out, the Classified Removable Electronic Media (CREM) in question was assumed to exist only because of an accounting error.

On Aug. 11, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., tipped off the public that he thought the matter was a “false positive,” and not in itself a serious breach of security, but the “nothing happened” excuse did not sit well in Congress nor at the Department of Energy, weary of safety and security turbulence at LANL.

Over the next few years, Horne claims, he was persecuted and retaliated against by some of his bosses at the laboratory for the security breach that didn’t happen.

“He had the stigma, as the guy who shut down the lab,” said Horne’s attorney, Tim Butler in a phone call Thursday. “As long as senior management has that view, there’s no way he’s going to be back on a career path.”

The incident had major consequences for nearly everybody involved, including former Director Pete Nanos, who is one of the defendants in the current complaint, and many other employees who were not directly involved, but were swept along in the aftermath.

When another, unrelated safety incident occurred shortly after the security occurrence, Nanos ordered the laboratory to shut down almost all of its operations, which were gradually scrubbed for safety and security hazards before standing up over the next several months.

The shutdown led to the creation of LANL: The Real Story, the blog that began to express and mobilize opinions within the laboratory that were critical and derisive of the director.

Horne’s friend and mentor, Todd Kauppila was arbitrarily terminated September 23, according to his account.

He was only peripherally connected to the incident, having chaired an international conference for which the disks had been recorded. He was one of 19 employees who were terminated.

Horne was placed on a ten-day suspension at the end of December 2004.

As stress and recriminations mounted over the next several months, Kauppila died of a massive pancreatic hemorrhage on May 8, 2005, coincidentally two days after Nanos resigned.

Nanos was replaced by Robert Kuckuck. The LANL contract was opened for competition and taken over by Los Alamos National Security (LANS) in 2006.

Although the crux of the matter took place while the University of California was in charge, the LANS partnership that includes UC is also a defendant in the case.

“The Laboratory did not anticipate this suit because Mr. Horne previously chose to use binding arbitration to resolve his complaint against the Laboratory,” the statement from LANL noted.

“In fact, his claims were resolved last year in arbitration. Further, the complaint apparently relates to events that occurred in 2004, long before LANS became the prime contractor at LANL.

“They had Horne as an employee from June 2006 onward,” Butler said, “and the stigmatization continued.”

Subjected to what he believes was a hostile work environment, Horne decided to take an early retirement at the laboratory in 2007.

The complaint details his contention that the incident had a destructive effect on his health and career, and included  fraudulent, malicious and conspiratorial behavior.

The complaint states that in February 2008, an independent arbitrator ruled that Horne had not violated any policies or procedures and that he had handled the classified material appropriately.

But the suit extends the argument, saying that the arbitration excluded the other issues Horne had raised.

“Only after June 21, 2007, after having selected binding arbitration and after LANL having severely limited the scope of his adjudication,” the complaints states, “was Horne (over ensuing months) finally allowed access to copies of LANS Case Review Board documents, LANS Security Incident Team (SIT) reports and LANS Human Resources staff reports concerning the allegations, purported facts, supposed infractions, witness statements and other information and materials relevant to his complaint.”

Had Horne had access to this material, the complaint states, “he could have more fully assessed and invoked his rights under his contract of employment with LANS…”