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Mason: Off to a ‘pretty good start’

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By Bennett Horne

Taxes and transition were among the topics addressed by Los Alamos National Laboratory Director-Designee Thomas Mason Monday during his visit to the Secret City.

Mason, who was at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for 19 years – 10 as its director – made the Monitor his first stop after meeting with LANL employees earlier in the morning as part of the transition process that will see Triad National Security, LLC, take full management control of the lab by Nov. 1.

“So far I think we’re off to a pretty good start,” Mason said. “We got the notice to proceed on July 3 that said transition starts on July 5. That gave us a couple of days to book our plane tickets and get out here for last Monday. Then we jumped right in and began getting ourselves oriented.”

Mason said there was a lot of legwork that had already been done by the time he arrived in Los Alamos.

“Fortunately the folks here at the lab and at the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) had done a lot of work to prepare,” he said. “They’d looked at what happened in some of the other transitions and tried to think through, ‘OK, how can we do things so we don’t encounter this problem and that problem.’ We had a good week and we’re running fast now. Everyone (around Los Alamos) has been very welcoming and that’s wonderful.”

The feeling was apparently the same inside the lab.

“It’s been tremendously welcoming,” he said. “With most people in any lab, get them talking about what they’re doing and they’re pretty committed to that mission. That’s the sense I’ve been getting, that there is a set of really smart, dedicated, patriotic people who come to work here every day.”

Mason said he and his wife are currently in the process of deciding exactly where they will live.

“We’re looking for a house now,” he said. “My wife’s here with me and we’ve been scouting the area. It’s a good thing that the lab is prospering (but at the same time it makes it) hard to find a place to live. But we’ll see how that goes.”

It’s a process with a lot of options to consider.

“We’re looking at all the possibilities,” he said. “Everyone always makes their own tradeoff decisions: how long do you want to commute, do you want to be out in the countryside, do you want the cultural amenities in Los Alamos. We’re going to be working through all that.”

Mason said wherever he and his wife land, it would be important for the lab – especially its leadership – to play an integral part in the community.

“I think engagement with the community is tremendously important,” he said. “We’re only going to be successful if we have the support of the communities around us. All of the communities: Los Alamos, the pueblos, northern New Mexico at large. And one of the things I’ve always felt was important was engagement on the part of lab leadership. We need to be out there.”

As for his involvement, Mason said there are two areas in the community in which he’s eager to participate.

“Everyone has their own passions that they pursue,” he said. “I’ve been interested primarily in public education and economic development. Those were things I got really engaged in Oak Ridge and I’m looking forward to learning more about that here.”

Mason said a strong school system and innovative local marketplace are important cornerstones for a lab community.

“Obviously it’s important to us that we have a strong school system,” he said. “And if you’ve got a lab that’s doing all this innovative stuff it’s good to see some of it get out into the marketplace and turn into new products and new technologies. When that happens locally it creates jobs and that’s a good thing, too.”

When asked about security and safety issues that dogged the lab’s previous management, Los Alamos National Security, Mason said he hopes Triad’s new leadership team will blend fresh ideas with experience to safely deliver the mission of the lab.

“If you look at the responsibilities that Los Alamos has as part of its mission these are high-consequence activities,” he said. “They are high-consequence in terms of their importance to the nation and high-consequence in the sense that you have to make sure you’re doing things properly. That’s part of what we’re trying to bring with the new team, a blending of a deep knowledge of the lab and its missions, with some fresh ideas that come from some other institutions.”

The team was selected from a pool of experts who’ve gained experience working at other national laboratories.

“We’ve got people that have experience at Savannah River, Idaho National Lab, Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge and Nuclear Navy,” Mason said. “So there’s a set of fresh ideas that comes with that, and then our task is to blend that with some of the things that have been happening here recently to improve performance.”

He continued, “We have a little bit different approach to some of the organizational aspects and that has an impact on the culture. We want to make sure we are delivering that mission safely and securely and meeting all the expectations that are upon us for the nation.”

As for the team itself, Mason said the individuals were selected in an objective manner with an emphasis on who was the best fit for each job.

“I’m probably a little biased, but I think we have a great team,” he said. “This was a set of individuals that we picked based on the best available athlete for that job. We didn’t try to restrict it in terms of what your corporate affiliation was or anything else, we just said, ‘What’s the task for this job and who’s the best person for it?’ So you’ll see we’ve got a mix of people who know the lab well and some people who’ll bring some fresh ideas.”

When the conversation turned to the elephant in the room, Triad’s tax filing status, Mason met the topic head on.

“I recognize how important this is to the state and to the community,” he began. “And actually that’s the reason why we’ve been kind of cautious because the worst thing I could do is tell you something that turned out to be wrong, and so I really don’t want to say something definitive and have it turn out to be the wrong thing.”

Some of the issue complicating matters, Mason pointed out, is that while Triad is a non-profit entity, its subcontractors are not.

“The reason why it is a little bit complicated, and why we’re taking so much time to study it, is because first off Triad is a non-profit,” he said. “The members of Triad – Texas A&M University, the University of California and Battelle – are all non-profit, public service organizations. Non-profit is not exactly the same as tax-exempt. I think many people look at that and think you’re automatically tax-exempt. That’s not necessarily true. And because we are a multi-member LLC, we actually have for-profit companies that are a part of our team as subcontractors. That makes it a little more complicated to disentangle.”

In the end, he said, “It’s a question of New Mexico state tax law and it will be the state of New Mexico that’s the ultimate arbiter.”

Mason said while the goal is to work out the details surrounding the filing status as soon as possible, those details have to mesh with New Mexico state law.

“Right now we’re doing some due diligence to make sure we’re understanding this properly,” he said. “Obviously we want to let everyone know as soon as we can, but I really didn’t want to get out there and say something only to find out we’re not consistent with New Mexico state law. We’re not quite there yet in terms of being able to be definitive.”

He did say it was important for everyone to understand that “regardless of the tax status of Triad, a large fraction of the lab’s work is performed through subcontracts.”

So even if Triad were to become tax-exempt for the gross receipts tax, those subcontracts would all pick up that tax.

“So it’s not quite as big an issue as it looks to be at first blush because there’s a huge volume of work that the lab does through subcontractors and small businesses,” he said. “We’ve actually got small businesses on our team. We’re committed to growing that part of the economy. And that could mitigate the outcome depending on how it plays out.”

When asked if there was a date for realization of the filing situation, Mason said, “I don’t think it will be too much longer.

I don’t want to give you a date, but we’ve got to resolve it fairly quickly. We’re just trying to make sure when we know the answer that it’s the right answer and it’s not going to change.”

Even though the official transition deadline is Nov. 1, Mason said everyone involved is currently working hard to facilitate a changeover smooth enough to flow right through the deadline date.

“We’re actually planning on not waiting until transition,” he said. “We want to be communicating a lot all the way through so that actually by the time we get to transition I hope it’s a non-event. It should just be that we’re running this lab and we’re delivering on the mission. If you look at a relay race the baton never slows down when it goes from one runner to the next. That’s what we want to happen.”

Mason said he and his team are “excited to be here” and looking forward to working in – and becoming familiar with – Los Alamos.

“Those of us who are coming from far afield are looking forward to getting to know this place and it’s people,” he said. “It’s got a great history. Today is the 73rd Anniversary of the Trinity test. That is an epic event in our nation’s history and something that was created here in Los Alamos. Of course now with the Manhattan Project National Park there’s an opportunity to tell that story. And we’re going to continue to make those kind of important contributions to our nation once we assume responsibility in November.”

And until then, he said, “There’s only one lab director and that’s Terry Wallace. I’m just doing my preparatory work to get ready to assume that responsibility.”

Texas A&M University leaders said Tuesday that Energy Secretary Rick Perry wasn’t involved in his alma mater getting a $2.5 billion nuclear weapons lab contract at the birthplace of the atomic bomb, which is changing management after years of safety and security lapses, according to a story by the Associated Press. Triad won the bid in June.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, speaking at length about the contract for the first time Tuesday, said Triad’s proposal was favorably scored by the National Nuclear Security Administration before it reached Perry’s desk. Perry, who was Texas governor until 2015, was friends with Sharp in college at Texas A&M and he appointed many of the school regents who are still serving today, according to the Associated Press.

The NNSA has previously said Perry played no role in the evaluation or selection of the new management at Los Alamos.

“I’m told it’s highly unusual to not have any protests, and no one protested this deal,” Sharp said, according to the Associated Press.