Senators say DOE may have reimbursed contractor for fighting whistleblower claims

Senators say DOE may have reimbursed contractor for fighting whistleblower claims
© Greg Nash

The Department of Energy (DOE) appears to have reimbursed one of its contractors millions of dollars for legal expenses from fighting whistleblower retaliation claims, a pair of Senate Democrats say.

Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillOvernight Cybersecurity: DHS cyber nominee vows to make election security 'top priority' | CIA to allow lawmakers to review classified info on Haspel | Dems raise security concerns about Trump's phone use Election security dominates hearing for Trump Homeland Security nominee Overnight Cybersecurity: Homeland Security official says Russia likely targeted more than 21 states | Senate approves Trump's NSA chief | Lawmakers unveil bipartisan internet privacy bill MORE (Mo.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Cybersecurity: DHS cyber nominee vows to make election security 'top priority' | CIA to allow lawmakers to review classified info on Haspel | Dems raise security concerns about Trump's phone use CIA will allow senators to review classified material on Haspel Senators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing MORE (Ore.) asked about the situation in a Tuesday letter to Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Cybersecurity: Senators want info on 'stingray' surveillance in DC | Bills to secure energy infrastructure advance | GOP lawmaker offers cyber deterrence bill House panel advances bills to guard energy grid from cyberattacks The ‘victim card’ always obscures the truth MORE, citing documents that appear to show that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) paid more than $24 million to the partnership of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for costs from a series of whistleblower cases.

Rules generally prohibit contractors from recovering such costs from federal agencies.

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“Whistleblowers are an invaluable resource for weeding out waste, fraud and abuse — the last thing the government should be doing is paying the legal fees of contractors who’ve retaliated against whistleblowers,” McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“The Department of Energy needs to justify why it spent taxpayer dollars on reimbursing this contractor. And if it can’t, it needs to get that money back now.”

DOE and the Lawrence Livermore partnership did not return requests for comment on the senators’ letter.

The documents Wyden and McCaskill cite came from ongoing litigation involving a whistleblower, and they did not disclose the litigant in the case.

They say that in eight lawsuits, four of which are ongoing, NNSA let the contractor charge millions of dollars to the agency for costs that went to outside law firms.

McCaskill, Wyden and other senators with significant DOE operations in their states have long been pushing for the agency to crack down on whistleblower retaliation. They say that federal reimbursement for such legal costs makes crackdowns harder.

A 2016 report from the DOE’s Inspector General found various problems with how DOE determines whether to reimburse legal and settlement costs, while a Government Accountability Office report that year found that the agency inconsistently used its enforcement authority on contractors who retaliated.

The senators asked DOE in their letter to explain the costs that the NNSA did reimburse for and what the agency is doing to comply with the prohibitions on certain payments.