Michelle Doggett thought she was doing the right thing by exposing fraud at Lawrence Livermore Lab. But in a town where work and family are one, there's a word for people like her.

Jim and Michelle Doggett in front of their Livermore home. Credits: Melissa Barnes

Every time Michelle Doggett made the 35-mile trek to Oakland from Livermore for a court hearing, the weather gods served up the same entrée: dreary and overcast. This morning was no different: cold, cloudy, crappy. Before the 41-year-old mother of three and her husband Jim headed west on I-580, they had to drop their youngest child off at Almond School, an elementary school popular among employees of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory because it also houses a daycare center for the kids of lab workers. Doggett estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the kids who attend Almond have parents who work at the lab. Her daughter Alexis (Lex for short) is one of them. Jim Doggett works at the lab, has for eighteen years. And Michelle worked there herself until four years ago, when she just couldn’t handle being treated as a traitor anymore.

Driving along, Michelle explained to Lex that mom and dad might not be done in time to pick her up from school, but her older brother would be there for her.

“Is this another lawsuit thing?” asked the blonde ten-year-old, a little miffed.

Indeed, it was. Michelle Doggett is suing her former employer, Livermore Lab, claiming it punished her for bringing financial improprieties to light. At the time, her whistleblower retaliation lawsuit was entering its third year with no end in sight, and seeking vindication had become Doggett’s full-time job. Lex nicknamed her mom “Busybody,” because she always seemed busy reading court documents and deposition transcripts, or heading to and from court.

Lex had a follow-up question for Michelle: “Mom, what’s a whistleblower?” she asked. “Because my friends say it’s just a snitch.”

Snitch. The word stung. “See, Jim?” Doggett said, turning to her husband. “Out of the mouths of babes speaks the truth that everyone else just thinks.”

Livermore is a company town, and that company is the lab. When you live and work in such an environment, it isn’t always easy to do what you think is right. To come forward with what you consider wrongdoing by your employer puts you at risk of being labeled, not merely by co-workers but by your neighbors, and your kids’ friends. Michelle thought she’d done the right thing, and here her little girl was asking if she was a snitch.

Granted, the city has grown up a lot since the University of California-managed weapons lab opened for business a half-century ago and, as the legend goes, its leaders all lived on the same street. But the lab is still Livermore’s biggest employer with 8,100 workers, most of whom still live here or in the surrounding valley.

Both Michelle and her husband, Jim, are homegrown lab rats. She went to Livermore High; he to Granada. They met at the lab, where both worked in procurement (she was his secretary). Jim’s father and stepmother also worked there for decades. Jim points out that his dad and his sister used to work in the same trailer where he works now. Relationships are entangled like that at the lab. At one point during Jim’s tenure, his boss was married to Michelle’s supervisor.

It’s like a big family at the lab. And like any family, it is occasionally dysfunctional, and it has its secrets. Michelle remembers her former lab boss warning her once not to go outside the lab “family,” as he called it, with embarrassing information. The same boss also happened to be a close family friend of Jim’s parents, who regularly attended their annual Christmas parties.

It was within this close-knit, insular atmosphere that Michelle Doggett chose to blow the whistle. The lab’s own policies encourage employees who see wrongdoing to come forward, and it seemed appropriate to expose waste and outright fraud going on under her nose. That was six long years ago. Now, as her trial date moves closer, a well-known congressman is weighing in on her behalf, even as the lab attempts to get her suit thrown out of court (see sidebar below).

Doggett’s case is one of a handful of whistleblower-retaliation lawsuits now pending against Livermore lab and the University of California, which also manages Lawrence Berkeley lab and New Mexico’s Los Alamos lab under a contract with the US Department of Energy. Those cases have been overshadowed in Congress and the press recently by the troubles at Los Alamos, where two in-house investigators were fired after they uncovered widespread credit card and spending fraud. US Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico is the latest high-profile politician to criticize the university over its mismanagement of Los Alamos. UC has exclusively managed all three labs for more than a half-century, and Domenici wants to invite new bidders to compete for the contract when the university’s deal expires in September 2005.

Earlier this year, with critics calling for the end of UC’s contract for Los Alamos, and perhaps even the other labs, Ron Darling, the university’s interim vice president for lab management, tapped a familiar name to advise him on lab issues. When Doggett heard about the appointment, she couldn’t believe her ears: Darling was bringing on Robert Kuckuck, Livermore’s former second-in-command — the very same man, she says, who did almost nothing to protect her after she came to him for help.

Doggett and her colleague, Teri McDonald, were desperate by the time they went to talk to former deputy director Kuckuck shortly after Labor Day in 1997. They had told their stories of the waste and fraud they’d seen at the lab to countless people — their supervisors, program leaders, human resources officials, and the acting head of their division over the prior sixteen months. Each time, Doggett says, they were either told “let it go” or “look the other way.” Nothing ever changed, they felt, and things got so uncomfortable for Doggett around the office that she began maintaining old e-mails and keeping notes of her private conversations with co-workers, in case it became necessary to cover her ass after the fact.

The two women even served as confidential informants for the Office of Investigative Services, the lab’s internal cop shop, in its six-month investigation of possibly illegal business practices in their division, EMATT, which was shorthand for Energy, Manufacturing, and Transportation Technology.

Doggett had joined EMATT nearly four years earlier, fresh from maternity leave. Her husband’s stepmother, who already worked there as an administrative assistant, had suggested she transfer there, she says. In the post-Cold War world, some true believers viewed the new division, launched in 1992, as the future of the nuclear weapons lab. It dabbled in anything from oil-well research to battery-powered cars to operating software for robots.

Managing the division was a number of program leaders, who answered to an imposing Croatian-born engineer named Tony Chargin, a thirty-year lab veteran who used to work with Jim Doggett’s dad. Chargin liked to race sailboats — his boat is named Twoirrational — and had a reputation as a crude humorist, sometimes offending the women in the office. He jokingly referred to staff meetings as “gang bangs,” according to records from an internal sexual-harassment investigation.

Chargin believed his division needed to be aggressive and entrepreneurial, Doggett recalls. EMATT boasted more cooperative research and development agreements than any other division by far. These are deals in which the lab teams up with private industry to develop potentially important and lucrative new technologies. Employees in Chargin’s unit typically described the work as “chaotic and fast-paced.” Cussing was seen as a virtue. Someone even started an office “curse box” in which people would be obliged to deposit money each time they uttered a four-letter word. That led to ribbing of the less-bawdy, since, once enough money had accumulated in the box, the workers would use it to go out to dinner.

Ties in the division ran deep in some cases. When program leader Daniel Thompson — who was convicted in 1998 for his role in a fraud scam unrelated to the lab — had served out his time, some of his former Livermore colleagues threw him a “get out of jail” party.

Michelle Doggett and Teri McDonald both worked as resource managers for Chargin’s division. McDonald was five years older than her counterpart, and had a reputation for being fastidious. Doggett once described her to a co-worker as “anal” when it came to projects. Anal, however, wasn’t a bad quality for a resource manager: Their job was to follow the money — that is, to make sure it was spent properly and for its intended purpose. All too often, the two women discovered to their dismay, it wasn’t.

Doggett began to notice suspicious spending and accounting practices in her program around November 1995. At first, she and McDonald bristled at some seemingly piddling, if improper, habits of Robert Whitsett, the program leader for oil and gas projects.

Whitsett lived in Houston, and spent most of his time traveling or schmoozing, coming into his Livermore office six days a month at most. He reputedly had connections to oil industry heavies in Texas. He was also pals with Robert Faber, the influential staff director for the House Subcommittee on Water and Power Resources, which kept an eye on some of the lab’s work for the Bureau of Reclamation. Chargin hired Whitsett to keep the pulse of Texas oil folks and to scrounge up funding from Washington for the lab program. Doggett and McDonald groused when Chargin and Whitsett tried to “loan” a lab computer to the congressional aide to use in his home, though the deal ultimately got buried in red tape. The two bean counters also grew suspicious of how Whitsett never took vacation days, yet would call his secretary from the Vail ski resort during business hours.

This was all pretty small-time stuff, but there were other, more troublesome signs. For one, it seemed to the women that ethics were lacking in the office environment. Chargin allegedly boasted in mixed company that a $10,000 subcontract with an influential figure was “a bribe.” And a $300,000 subcontract with Texas A&M University was widely perceived in the office as a political deal. A lab administrator responsible for overseeing the subcontract even refused to sign payment invoices because he felt the university hadn’t done any real work. Whitsett, however, made sure Texas A&M still got paid, Doggett told investigators. Meanwhile, a higher-up in the lab program who worked on a cooperative R&D agreement with a Livermore company called Trinity Flywheel left to become Trinity’s vice president of engineering. But he still maintained his office at the lab.

The most serious offenses Doggett and McDonald were purportedly told to overlook — and the most costly to taxpayers — involved the siphoning of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federally funded cooperative research and development agreements with outside firms.

Chargin ran a top-heavy division that spent lavishly on management perks and salaries. He allegedly told Doggett and McDonald not to question the perks: If a program leader wanted to bring his secretary on a business trip, he could. McDonald recalled that as a secretary for one program leader, she always had to reserve a room in a hotel with a health club where the boss could exercise on a Stairmaster.

According to Doggett’s suit, the bloated overheads routinely left some projects broke before the end of the fiscal year. Chargin and his crew allegedly solved this problem by raiding the budgets of cash-cow research agreements with outside firms. That meant the lab’s partners were being milked for costs entirely unrelated to their projects. Both Doggett and McDonald considered the accounting tricks unethical at best, and possibly illegal.

One of these alleged cash cows was a partnership with Icon Industrial Controls, a Louisiana-based software start-up whose proprietor, Donald Adrian, was a former employee of Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1994, he and the Livermore and Los Alamos labs inked a $52.6 million R&D agreement — with $25 million of that coming from the Department of Energy — to develop what Adrian describes as “DOS for robots.”

In a 1999 false-claims lawsuit Adrian filed against the lab and the University of California, he accused Chargin and his group of diverting more than $5 million of federal money earmarked for his project to pay for other EMATT programs and overhead. Chargin “was running EMATT like it was his own little fiefdom,” Adrian said in a recent phone interview. “It’s like he read the RICO Act and thought it was a DOE directive. Once the money got there for him there were no laws, there were no rules.”

A judge threw out Adrian’s lawsuit on a technicality last year, but his complaint triggered an ongoing investigation of EMATT by the Justice Department.

In December 1996, after being brushed off by their supervisors and human resources officials, Doggett and McDonald took their concerns to the Office of Investigative Services, the lab’s detective unit. The women agreed to sign a statement and become confidential informants. But it didn’t take long before word got around the office that there was a snitch in the ranks.

Three months into the internal investigation, Chargin sent Doggett an e-mail: “Hi,” it read. “Can we get together and talk this morning?” The missive worried Doggett, since it was out of character for Chargin to demand a sit-down. She peeked into his office shortly before noon and caught him eating a sandwich. He suggested they go to another office where they could talk privately, according to Doggett’s contemporaneous notes of the exchange.

A tall and burly man, Chargin towered over the diminutive whistleblower. He seemed edgy to Doggett. No doubt, she thought, Chargin knew there was a leak in the office. She feared he knew who was responsible, but she couldn’t be sure.

“How are things down in the Bullpen?” Chargin asked, using the nickname for the area where Doggett worked.

“Fine, things are fine.”

“Are things really that good?” the boss probed.

According to her notes, Doggett tossed out a red herring, a gripe about someone in the office pushing work off on her.

“I’m choosing my words carefully these days,” he confided. Chargin went on, according to Doggett’s notes, to complain about what he considered the accusatory tone of McDonald’s office e-mails. In the preceding months, for instance, Michelle’s co-worker had raised a stink about Lawrence Livermore paying Whitsett’s entire salary when he also did work for other labs like nearby Lawrence Berkeley. McDonald felt Berkeley should help pay for his salary and travel expenses, and several e-mails circulated on the topic. After a tense meeting about Whitsett’s compensation, McDonald sent an e-mail to Whitsett, copying Chargin, that summarized the meeting.

These kinds of e-mails, Chargin said, evoked what he called “the fear factor.”

“Fear of what?” Doggett asked.

“Going to jail,” he said, “because the finger is pointed at me or whoever.” Doggett replied that McDonald was just trying to cover her butt since, as a temporary employee, she was constantly afraid of losing her job. “This is what is going to cause it to happen,” Chargin allegedly said.

According to Doggett’s notes, he ended the conversation by suggesting she “concentrate on what’s best for our family — our EMATT family. Think about what is best for the family first. We need to keep stuff in the family and develop trust.”

In his deposition last fall, Chargin acknowledged using the phrase “going to jail,” but said it was only a “figure of speech.” As for the “family” invocation, Chargin said he never suggested to Doggett that she keep quiet about any wrongdoing in the program. He also denied threatening McDonald’s job.

Doggett left her meeting with Chargin shaken. A couple of days later she met with the lab detectives and signed another statement, this time spelling out her fears in writing: “I am very concerned about retaliation regarding this information.”

Over the next few months, things grew even more uncomfortable for Doggett and her cohort. “Doors would be closed in my face.” she says. “Meetings would be held without my attendance. People would not talk in front of me. The manner of requesting me to do work for program leaders was hostile. I heard negative comments from co-workers that someone else had said about me. It was as if I was this mole and therefore no one trusted me. I was treated like a snitch, a person disloyal to the program.”

By June, McDonald couldn’t hack it anymore and transferred to another part of the lab, Doggett says. (McDonald, who still works at the lab in the director’s office, did not return phone calls seeking comment.) Doggett became so stressed at work, she says, she went to see the in-house shrink.

On June 4, 1997, Chargin summoned Doggett for another one-on-one. In that meeting, she alleges, Chargin threatened her job. Contacted for this story, Chargin, now director of Livermore’s Conventional Facilities division, declined to comment. “I feel like she filed a court case, and she needs to argue through a court and not through the newspapers,” he said. In his deposition, he said that while he knew someone was passing along insider information to lab police, he had actually suspected two other women.

When Livermore’s investigators finished their inquiry that same month, they assembled two reports. One was a criminal report, in which they concluded Whitsett had stolen $8,500 from the lab through reimbursement and time-card fraud. They sent it to the Alameda County district attorney, who declined to prosecute, deeming it a matter best handled internally by the lab. The investigators also authored a second, thicker report of what they described as administrative but not criminal issues.

Whitsett and others received copies of the massive reports. They all but named Doggett as the informant, she felt after seeing them. The reports don’t explicitly name Doggett or McDonald as those who had originally complained — several EMATT employees, including the two women, are quoted at length. But Doggett’s attorney, Jan Nielsen, says anyone reading between the lines could figure out who the “snitch” was. Both reports note that the investigations were initiated by individuals who wanted to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation. The investigators, Nielsen points out, later quoted Doggett by name in the administrative report as saying she “fears retaliation” for helping the investigation.

When it seemed like the Office of Investigative Services wasn’t going to produce any changes, Doggett and McDonald arranged to take their case to the top. At the time, you couldn’t get much higher than Bob Kuckuck. As the deputy director of lab operations, he oversaw a budget of about $120 million and nearly a third of the lab’s employees. Like so many in Lawrence Livermore’s upper echelon, he was a lifer, having signed on right after getting his master’s degree in physics from Ohio State three decades earlier.

Doggett and McDonald put together a presentation of the whole ugly mess, including how they felt emotionally drained and as though they’d jeopardized their careers by coming forward. They also shared a list of demands, which included making Kuckuck their sole point of contact regarding their allegations, and asking that he help them salvage their careers and see to it that the lab start treating ethical behavior as an asset rather than a betrayal. At the end of their ninety-minute presentation, Doggett remembers Kuckuck assuring them, “You don’t have to do anything more.”

Following the meeting with Kuckuck, Doggett was relieved. Finally, she felt confident that things would change around the lab, and some did: Whitsett was let go. A couple months later, Chargin was transferred to another division. (However, his review for that year is missing from his personnel file, and there’s not so much as a letter of reprimand, according to Nielsen, Doggett’s attorney.)

Yet instead of things getting better for her, Doggett claims they got worse. First, her supervisors tried to boot her out of EMATT. They backed off after she objected, and her husband got Kuckuck’s office to intervene. Still, the bad vibes persisted. One morning she came in and greeted program leader Jill Watz, who was in the break room getting coffee. Watz, a Chargin loyalist who had defended her former boss against sexual harassment allegations (as had Jim Doggett’s stepmother), looked at her, said nothing, and went back to pouring her coffee.

Around the same time, the staff had an offsite work meeting at the nearby Poppy Ridge Restaurant, but neglected to invite Doggett, she says. She began joking about the “chill factor” in the office: A merely awkward day was “a sweater day,” while a bad one was “a parka day.” Meanwhile, her new boss Linda Nidever-Galles criticized her for not being more friendly with her co-workers. Angry about his wife’s treatment, Jim Doggett called Kuckuck’s office to ask about the lab’s rules on protecting whistleblowers. Kuckuck’s assistant responded with agitation and hung up on him. A short time later, Jim’s immediate supervisor pulled him aside. He’d just talked to his own boss, Harry Galles, who’d gotten a call from Kuckuck’s office. Galles warned that Doggett should “be more careful for his own career,” according to notes kept by Jim’s boss.

With pressure mounting on both herself and her husband, or so she felt, Michelle took a one-year stress-related disability leave, returning to work in February 1999. “We’d given it a year, let’s let bygones be bygones,” she says. “But it was far worse when I got back.”

Upon her return, she was placed with a new division, although she still reported to the same boss. On paper, she retained the same title, the same classification, and the same pay. But it was clear to Doggett she was being punished. She went from having $250,000 signature authority — or power to sign off on payments — to having none whatsoever. She later discovered she was what was known inside the lab as an “EBA” — employee between assignments. Lab sources say being designated an EBA is a typical method of exiling dissenters to bureaucratic limbo in both administrative and scientific lab divisions. “People are deliberately made EBAs as a punishment for expressing dissenting technical judgments,” says Jeff Colvin, a physicist at the lab.

Then Doggett heard about an opening in her old division for her old job. Even after all the bad blood, she wanted back in. It’s one of the quirks of her case, she knows: Why would she return to the place where all the bad stuff began? To her it seemed like a good opportunity. The main “bad guys” were gone by now. Besides, she says, she liked the work she did there in spite of all the strife. But when she started putting out feelers for a move, she was quickly reined in by her boss.

Doggett was brought in for a sit-down with Nidever-Galles, who somberly explained that people didn’t want her back in her old job, according to Doggett’s version of the conversation. Nidever-Galles pulled out a performance review done during Doggett’s year off, which Michelle knew nothing about, in which program leaders expressed grave doubts about her trustworthiness and competence. Before she blew the whistle, Doggett had always received stellar reviews: Even Tony Chargin had once argued with his superiors that she deserved a raise. In the review, Jill Watz had criticized Doggett for spreading gossip. “On a number of occasions,” Watz wrote, “she passed along sensitive information about EMATT personnel that was inappropriate and clearly lacked discretion.” When grilled about this during her deposition, Watz admitted she was talking about Robert Whitsett; the same man who according to Lawrence Livermore’s own detectives had defrauded the lab of $8,500.

Doggett’s boss showed her the review to demonstrate why she shouldn’t return to her old haunt; Nidever-Galles allegedly added she was willing to write it off to a “bad year,” something everybody was capable of. Afterward, Doggett fired off a letter to Kuckuck with her abysmal performance review attached. “Why is it that of all the people actively involved in wrongdoing or the covering up of such, I’m the one that had a ‘bad year,’ thus resulting in the most scathing appraisal of my ten-year laboratory career?” She ended the letter saying, “I ask you for nothing but your honest comments and advice.”

Doggett never heard anything back from Kuckuck. Then, in August 1999, she resigned. One year later, she filed her lawsuit, which alleges that a hostile work environment forced her departure.

After Michelle quit the lab, Jim took a part-time job at the local Home Depot evenings and weekends to keep up with the bills. “It was stressing things to the max,” he says. “We did what we had to do.”

Michelle found that navigating a lawsuit precluded her from holding down a regular job. For a while she tried raising parrots, which isn’t as strange as it sounds, since she’d once worked on a bird farm. But hand-feeding the birds turned out to be too time-consuming, so she gave that up, too. And she feels weird looking for another job with a trial pending in her lawsuit. “I can’t in good conscience tell an employer, ‘Okay, yes, I want this job, but I might have to take off two or three days this week,'” Doggett says. “If trial goes as it’s supposed to, they said it’s gonna be a thirty-day trial. I don’t expect any employer to be sympathetic to that.”

Back at the lab, meanwhile, Jim’s career has stalled out. He’s been working the same specific job for the past eleven years, an unusually long stint for Livermore, he says. Of course, he has his suspicions as to why. “Around the laboratory, things don’t get forgotten, and people have been around a long time,” he says. “It’s not like you have the high turnover that you would in a dot-com. No, people don’t forget stuff. It’s always there.”

Jim has looked for work elsewhere, but not that seriously. After all, he’s in his eighteenth year at the lab, nearing retirement. As a University of California employee, he enjoys one of the best pension plans available. That also helps keep him around, he admits. “I saw all my friends go do the dot-com thing and be out of work and really sweating bullets and job-hopping, and I’m thinking my lifestyle is one that I like to participate in my community,” he says. “I like to raise my kids, and I don’t have those kinds of worries.”

Earlier this year, as concerns about UC’s management at Los Alamos reached a peak, Doggett’s case attracted some high-level attention: Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts asked the DOE’s inspector general to seriously consider her allegations, and those of contractor Don Adrian. “Ms. Doggett and Mr. Adrian independently made similar allegations about many of the same individuals at Livermore, which lends further credibility to their cases,” he said.

Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote back on February 6 saying that his office, along with the Department of Justice, was already investigating “allegations of mischarging in the EMATT program” and “accounting irregularities among several cooperative research development agreements,” including those Adrian and Doggett had identified.

Adrian, Doggett, and other sources who’ve recently talked to federal investigators say the Justice Department is set to take legal action in the coming weeks to recover the misspent EMATT funds. (A DOJ spokesman, as is typical in such cases, would not confirm this.) The amount of money at stake is not yet clear. In an internal audit conducted by Livermore in 1997 after Doggett complained, lab officials say they identified just $32,000 in misspent funds, money they say has been refunded to the Department of Energy. Attorney Nielsen, meanwhile, says investigators have indicated to him that they’re looking at recovering millions of dollars in bogus costs.

All the attention has been a little overwhelming, Michelle Doggett says. She’s not one for the spotlight, after all. It wasn’t until earlier this year that she began talking to reporters because, she says, she didn’t want to be a media martyr. Plus, there’s the awkwardness with her in-laws, who spent so much of their lives at the lab. They are still friends with Chargin, and still invite him to their parties. “I don’t need any family rifts and I just don’t say anything if Tony’s there,” she says. “We didn’t go to the Christmas party for three years, which really hurt Jim’s dad, but at the time I couldn’t handle it.”

Doggett says she has never actually talked to her in-laws about her case, even when her family goes over to their house for dinner. “It’s kind of funny,” she says, “because nobody really wants to say anything about it, but you still get this cold-shoulder thing around the dinner table. When five of the people work at the lab, conversation is bound to head towards [work]; that’s just what happens. So I just sit back and bite my tongue.”

She only started talking to the press after the university named Kuckuck as its point man on lab-management issues. “I believe that his crime was that he did nothing,” she says. “He turned the other way when it was his responsibility to protect whistleblowers and provide support. The fact that he did nothing and now he’s in a position to further do nothing for another lab really bothers me.” Kuckuck could not be reached for comment by press time, but at his deposition for the case, he suggested he and lab officials had taken Doggett’s complaints seriously and acted accordingly by letting Whitsett go and transferring Chargin, among other things. “I felt that we had acted very strongly on her concerns and was very proud of the outcome of that, to be honest with you,” Kuckuck said.

Recently, Doggett has been getting phone calls from other would-be whistleblowers — “quacks” is how she describes some of them. “There was this one woman from the lab there now, she called me and said, ‘I think I’m being retaliated against now, and what do you think, and I want the name of your attorney.’ I said, ‘First off, this would not be my recommendation. I would not suggest you go this path.'”

For better or worse, Michelle Doggett has gone too far down that path herself to turn back. At this point, she’s not even sure she wants or needs vindication from a jury. She likens her situation to someone who starts reading a bad novel: It’s not enjoyable, but you feel obligated to finish what you started. “It’s funny to hear from strangers and those who are just starting to ask questions about it,” she says. “The first words out of their mouth is always the same: ‘So what are you gonna do with the millions you’re getting?’ And I laugh. I’m going, ‘Y’know what? If I could walk away with just my shirt now I’d be really pleased.'”

And while she may eventually walk away with more than that, any victory will be bittersweet. Such is the whistleblower’s plight. Her decision to do “the right thing” has made her an outcast from her work family — a snitch. And despite her husband’s unwavering support, her choice hasn’t exactly earned her a hero’s welcome in her real family. “Our seventeen-year-old says it all the time: ‘Why? Why not just be quiet? It’s a lot less pain.'”

Mom and Dad always answer, “Because it’s not right.” Still, with the benefit of hindsight, Michelle Doggett knows that if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn’t want to relive the last six years of her life.

Is UC Friendly to Whistleblowers?

Au contraire, says one congressman.

One ostensible benefit to working for UC hasn’t necessarily panned out. During the late ’80s, a common argument for keeping the university in charge of lab operations was that, as a public institution, it offered greater protection to whistleblowers than a private contractor would. That’s according to Nuclear Rites, a 1996 book about Livermore Lab culture by MIT anthropology professor Hugh Gusterson. “I’ve never seen any evidence of UC protecting anybody,” Gusterson said in a recent phone interview.

In fact, the opposite argument was put forth recently by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As Markey views the situation, UC enjoys a special exemption from whistleblower scrutiny. “Unlike private sector contractors,” he said through a spokesman, “there are no shareholders who respond adversely when the University of California gets bad publicity because of its treatment of whistleblowers.”

Furthermore, UC can pass along its legal expenses in whistleblower cases to the Department of Energy and thus has no incentive to settle. According to a March story in The Recorder, a Bay Area legal newspaper, the lab had already spent $145,000 dealing with the Doggett case. Another whistleblower case involving ex-employee Dee Kotla, who was fired for doing personal business at the lab in 1997 after testifying on behalf of a co-worker in a sexual harassment case, has cost the lab nearly $1 million in legal expenses, the paper reported.

In addition, Markey says, the university can invoke a Supreme Court decision saying public institutions like it have state sovereign immunity from federal “false claims” actions, a legal remedy under which many whistleblowers sue. Livermore contractor Don Adrian — who claimed Chargin and EMATT improperly diverted more than $5 million from his company’s project to pay for unrelated salaries, perks, and pet projects — had his lawsuit thrown out on such a technicality, although he’s appealing that ruling. “Private-sector contractors,” the congressman notes, “do not have this legal maneuver available.”

Susan Houghton, a lab spokeswoman, says Livermore did nothing to retaliate against Michelle Doggett. In fact, she says, the lab offered her another job a year after she quit, which Doggett turned down. Several lab managers named in the suit have also claimed they didn’t know she was a whistleblower, so they couldn’t have retaliated against her. “We do not believe Ms. Doggett is a whistleblower,” Houghton says. “We certainly appreciate the information Ms. Doggett provided to us.” The lab’s lawyers are trying to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds, arguing that Doggett did not exhaust her administrative remedies before she took her case to court.

Jan Nielsen, Doggett’s attorney, says Livermore’s lawyers want the case dismissed on “a technicality” because they can’t win on the merits. According to his theory, lab officials all the way up to Kuckuck and the director tried to suppress Doggett’s claims to avoid more bad publicity and reimbursements to the feds. The Department of Justice had already forced the lab to return $2.72 million to the federal government for funds misappropriated during the early ’90s in another lab program. Lab management, Nielsen argues, desperately wanted to avoid another expensive scandal. “They have a cover-up mentality up there,” he says.

A Culture of Retaliation

Livermore Lab has a troublesome history of apparent cover-ups.

In recent months, public attention has focused on fraud and cover-ups at Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the situation at Livermore, which is also managed by the University of California, is just as bad, if not worse, its critics say. Here are a few examples from over the past two decades:

Roy Woodruff: Livermore’s then-director of weapons research believed the lab’s co-founder, Edward Teller, was misleading White House officials with overly optimistic progress reports on the “Star Wars” missile defense laser in order to secure more federal funding. Woodruff resigned as weapons director in 1985, after being barred from countering Teller’s public boasts. He was later reassigned to what he described as a “windowless cubicle” and had his salary frozen for years to come. The Star Wars defense system was eventually abandoned.

Operation Snowstorm: When an undercover investigation came close to uncovering illegal drug use in the lab’s most top-secret divisions, Livermore leaders and DOE heavies pulled the plug on it in 1986. Two years later, a congressional inquiry concluded that lab management had demoted investigators who resisted the decision to end the inquiry. The narcs were also reportedly warned not to go after Ronald Stump, a chemist with top-level security clearances suspected of dealing drugs. Stump went on the lam in 1997 after allegedly stealing $10,000 in precious metals and engaging in a six-figure kickback scheme to buy a useless piece of technical equipment. Although he was a major security risk, lab officials dragged their feet in turning over his file to the authorities, forcing the federal prosecutors to secure a rushed indictment the day before the statute of limitations ran out. Amid rumors that Livermore employees were selling lab equipment to finance drug habits, the General Accounting Office in 1990 reported that video hardware, computers, and other equipment worth more than $45 million was missing from the lab.

Dee Kotla: Kotla, a computer tech, testified on behalf of a former female colleague in her sexual harassment lawsuit against a lab manager. At the same time, the lab launched an internal investigation of Kotla and fired her the following year for making less than five dollars’ worth of personal calls and using her computer for personal business. Last year, a jury awarded Kotla a $1 million judgment — later reduced to $750,000 — plus $1.1 million in attorney fees. The lab is appealing the ruling.

Dave Lappa: This nuclear engineer refused to sign off on an internal committee report which neglected to address serious safety violations involving the handling of plutonium. Afterward, he received a negative performance evaluation and was moved to a windowless office previously used as a storage closet. He sued the lab on number of grounds including whistleblower retaliation, but continued to work there. He quit in 2000 and settled with the lab for $250,000 in 2001.

Security cops: Security officers Matthew Zipoli and Charles Quinones claimed they were fired after disclosing serious security breakdowns. Lab officials, however, contended that the two, both leaders of the security guards’ union, were dismissed for organizing an illegal sickout. Earlier this year an arbitrator reinstated Zipoli, but not Quinones. The men have a retaliation lawsuit pending against the lab.